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Mark Morris and the Idea of Camp

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Wendy Lesser

I would never have thought to put the two together. But that is my point: we hardcore admirers of Mark Morris's choreography see nothing at all campy about it, and yet many other viewers (including some people who like his work just fine) apparently feel otherwise.

I did not fully realize this until this past March, when an acquaintance who had attended one of the "Month of Mark" anniversary performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music came up to me after the show. Knowing he was not a Morris regular, I was eager to proselytize.

"Didn't you love it?" I said of the particularly stellar pair of dances to which we had just been treated.

"Well, it was okay," he answered, "but it was just so camp."

I suppose I would have been taken aback in any case, but I was especially surprised because the pieces we had just seen were Four Saints in Three Acts and Dido and Aeneas. What, if anything, was camp about either of those? Four Saints admittedly has some humorous bits (a lone dancer turned away from a club-like entrance to which everyone else is officiously admitted; the St. Ignatius figure skimming sideways across the stage, like an icon on a conveyer belt, in synch with a rapid burst of Stein-speak), but unless anything funny or anything by Gertrude Stein counts as camp, I don't see it.

The argument is even weaker in the case of Dido and Aeneas, which is one of Morris's most starkly beautiful and touching pieces. In its recent BAM incarnation, Dido's classically rigorous structure was more visible than ever, because Morris—who used to dance both the role of Dido and the role of the Sorceress—had for the first time given away his two parts, one to a woman and one to a man. There were losses entailed in this changing-of-the-guard, but there were also gains. Without Morris to draw your eye every time he was onstage, you could actually see the precise details and careful symmetry of the other dancers' steps. And though I missed the presence of Morris himself—and missed, as well, the implications of the traditional double-casting, whereby the victim of the tragic love affair was also the manipulative destroyer of that affair—I understood that this version had a clarity and purity that offered us something new. Amber Darragh made a lovely, sorrowful Dido; if she was almost too humorless, too virginal in her strong, archaic beauty, well, that was one reasonable interpretation of the role. And Bradon McDonald was simply outstanding as the Sorceress. If I had not been present to witness it, I could not have believed that another dancer could do this signature Morris part with so much personality, so much power, so much delicacy, and such an amazing combination of raging narcissism and utter self-abdication. McDonald disappeared into the role and became something magical, like Yeats's dancer-from-the-dance: pure Sorceress, with only a hint of humorous tribute paid to the other marvelous dancer who had originated this role. So, yes, a man was playing a female part in Dido—but if that is camp, then all of Shakespeare and most of baroque opera are also camp, and I don't think we want to go that far, do we?

Mostly, when people call something camp, they mean that it is so bad it is good—bad becomes good because we, with our superior sensibility, can laugh at it. This is so counter to anything Mark Morris is doing, or has ever tried to do, that I find it remarkable anyone could even think to apply this notion to his work. He is always trying to make something good (I am tempted to capitalize Good—that's how important such discriminations are to him). Usually he succeeds; and on the few occasions when he fails, the result is never laughably bad, but frustratingly difficult to absorb. In fact, Morris's least successful dances are, in my opinion, the least likely to be called camp, because they leave the audience feeling blank. It is the ones that provoke laughter in some and tears in others that are most often saddled with this label. And for those of us who lean toward tears (in the snowflake scene of The Hard Nut, for instance, or the final dance of Going Away Party, or the moment when the eponymous nymph learns she's been duped in Platée), nothing is more annoying than the laughter of Morris's so-called fans. We want to leap out of our seats and smother them; we want awed silence, not knowing chuckles and hoots of I-get-it appreciation. We take our Mark Morris seriously — perhaps too seriously — and we resent it when other people do not.

One of the most stalwart members of the taking-Mark-seriously club was Susan Sontag. Like Woody Allen hauling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a post to settle a stupid argument in Manhattan, I wish I could call upon the author of "Notes on 'Camp'" to testify in person that Mark Morris's work is not campy. In the absence of the person (who was for many years a board member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, and to whose memory one of the new pieces presented in the Month of Mark was dedicated), I am obliged to resort to the essay itself.

I probably hadn't re-read it since about 1971 and, as with so many things read in one's youth, my memories of it were not entirely accurate. For one thing, I had no idea Sontag was so ambivalent about her subject. "I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it." This, it turns out, is one of the best things about the essay, for it enables her to see her subject from both inside and out.

It is also, from this distance, a movingly personal document. "Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves," commented this extremely serious young person (she was about thirty when she wrote the essay). But "one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly." The thought of the youthful Sontag sneaking off to have her lighthearted enjoyment on the sly is very endearing. Camp, it seems, offered a way of releasing oneself — specifically, her self — from the bonds of the eternally moral and high-minded. "The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious," she finally comes right out and says. "Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to 'the serious.' One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious." As someone who was not temperamentally drawn to the comic, in life or in art, Sontag apparently valued Camp in part because it enabled her to laugh.

"Notes on 'Camp'" has been treated, since it first appeared in 1964, as the very opposite of the tentative jottings Sontag intended to give us — as, on the contrary, a fixed and scholarly definition of the idea of Camp. In a sense, I am treating it this way myself, by mining it for nuggets that I can use to defend Mark Morris. I go down her checklist — androgyny, yes; extravagance, yes; the glorification of character, yes; but failed seriousness, no; out-of-date, no; good because it's awful, no; completely naïve or else completely self-conscious, no — and arrive at the conclusion that, weighed in the balance, Mark Morris is not camp.

But to tally things up like this is to misread both the essay and its relation to Morris's work. Sontag had not seen Mark Morris dance when she wrote "Notes on 'Camp'" (he was eight years old at the time, and was not to form his company for another sixteen years), but something of what made her write that essay also made her able to love his work when she later saw it. "Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy...Camp is a tender feeling," she wrote. Susan Sontag did not, as a rule, manifest tender feelings, but Morris's work allowed her to indulge in them without shame.

At the time Sontag wrote her essay, Camp was a largely homosexual sensibility. Perhaps it still is (though certainly some of the cliquishness has declined as the word itself has gone lower-case). Is this what people mean, then, when they say that Mark Morris's work is camp? Are they simply saying it seems gay?

It is easy to imagine and even to point to homosexual art that is not at all camp — Robert Mapplethorpe's photos, for instance, or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. But I am uncomfortable with the very notion of homosexual art. Is this a Jewish essay I am writing, or a female one? I would hope not, though I happen to belong to both those categories. Does the fact that Mark Morris is a very outspoken, out-of-the-closet, occasionally outrageous gay man mean that his art is necessarily gay? I have always assumed not. But perhaps I am being prudish in my refusal to allow this in: since everything else in the world is brought into Mark Morris's capacious dances, why not his own homosexual identity?

Well, of course it's there. It is pretty near impossible, for instance, to imagine a straight choreographer inventing, much less performing, the role of the Arabian Princess in The Hard Nut — a part that Morris himself has always danced, in see-through veils and come-hither eye makeup. There is certainly something exaggerated and epicene about the role (to use two of Sontag's definitional terms). But I would call the overall effect histrionic rather than camp. A small child would find the dance funny; there is no need for adult knowingness to come into play. When we laugh at this role, we are laughing not at the artifice of a man dressed as a woman (something that is not inherently funny, as Diane Arbus's photos make clear), but at the performance of a brilliant clown who can use his eyes alone to project expression all the way up to the balcony seats. Our laughter, in this respect, is naive and unthinking rather than contrived and sophisticated — though I doubt the two kinds of laughter can ever really be separated in that way, for laughter must always have an element of the natural and the unwilled if it is to be real laughter for ourselves, and not just display for others.

I have left aside the whole question of Mark Morris's special mixing and matching of male and female dancers. But surely it is not a sign of campiness that his women dancers occasionally lift his men, or that the men sometimes wear toe shoes and skirts. The stage has always been a place where we can become something other than what we physiologically are. And yet our origins can't be transcended completely: dance, in particular, depends on the physical constraints and talents that individual dancers were born with. It is the interplay between these two modes, the given and the created, as well as the tension produced by their conflict, that makes Mark Morris's work endlessly interesting.

Morris himself has always been the most fascinating and powerful dancer in his own company, but this year, during the entire month-long celebration at BAM, he performed in only one piece. The dance was From Old Seville, which Morris choreographed for himself, Lauren Grant, and John Heginbotham in 2001. Heginbotham, who is brilliant as St. Ignatius in Four Saints, uses nothing but his dramatic talent in this role: he stands to the side of the stage, pouring drinks, waggling a cigar in his mouth, and casting knowing glances at the other two. But Morris and Grant, as the male and female Spanish dancers seducing each other in an Andalusian bar, really dance.

It is important to the dance that Morris is very large and Grant is very small, and it is equally important that his gestures are extremely masculine whereas hers are utterly feminine. At nearly fifty years old, Morris can still perform a role like this one beautifully. He is sexy and funny and graceful and ludicrous all at once — just as undiluted masculinity is — and as he accompanies his rapid-fire steps with the furious click of his castanets, he is full of intense purpose even as he seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself. The dance makes nonsense of such categories as comic and serious, artificial and natural, naïve and sophisticated, tender and mocking. It is the farthest thing possible from camp. But it is also, I suspect, exactly what people mean when they call Morris's work camp. We can't both be right, can we?

June 15, 2006

Some additional information of a timely nature:

The Mark Morris Dance Group, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in March, is performing this summer at the London Coliseum (in June and July) and at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart festival (in August). For further details of the company's schedule, please see the Mark Morris Dance Group website at mmdg.org.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s program for its upcoming Fall 2006 season is now available at bam.org.

Susan Sontag's words about photography accompany a photo exhibit that is presently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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