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Summer 2012

Moving Parts

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Wendy Lesser

A Choral Fantasy,
choreographed by Mark Morris
for the Mark Morris Dance Group.
BAM, New York,
March 2012.

choreographed by Mark Morris
for the San Francisco Ballet.
Opera House, San Francisco,
February 2012.

Mark Morris is a serious artist, but he is also a provocateur. He loves lightness and humor; he relishes beauty and grace; he sincerely wants to entertain and enchant. Yet he also has a deepseated desire to disrupt expectations—everyone’s expectations, including his own. So when he comes across a line like “Accept then, oh you beautiful spirits, joyously the gifts of art” or hears about “Peace and joy advancing in perfect accord” (both phrases derived from the German libretto of Beethoven’s Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, the musical basis for his new Choral Fantasy), his first impulse is to obey these instructions, and his second, almost immediate response is to resist them.

Given the music’s pounding rhythms and its swell of feeling, the obvious choice would have been to make A Choral Fantasy a work of pure delight and celebration. Morris has done something more complicated than that. He has picked up on the imperative tone of that commanding “accept” and the slightly frightening idea of anything “advancing in perfect accord,” and he has played out the unnerving implications. In Beethoven’s world, for the solo piano to disappear into the ensemble’s louder, stronger sound represents the height of salvation and transcendence: it is a consummation devoutly to be wished for. In Morris’s world, the individual voice and the individual dancer matter, and they continue to matter even when they have been subsumed into the group. The merge is not an easy one, for that perfect accord can only be brought about through imperious restraint and regimentation. Morris knows this and acknowledges it in his work. Unlike lesser choreographers (including most ballet choreographers, who take such restrictions for granted, and most postmodern dance choreographers, who purport to reject them entirely), he lets us see the imposed constraints and possibly question them, even as we take pleasure in their results.

The costumes Isaac Mizrahi has designed for A Choral Fantasy—dark, sleeveless jumpsuits for both men and women, with torso-sized gold Xes emblazoned on the front and back, and gold bric-a-brac running up the outside seam of each leg—introduce the regimental theme, but they are not entirely responsible for it. Early on, Morris gives the dancers a full-body gesture that alludes to and indeed emphasizes the military, drum-majorette idea; it is a gesture that will be repeated intermittently, by some or all of the fifteen performers, throughout the twenty-minute piece. As they cross and recross the stage, the dancers march with a long-legged, brisk stride that involves one arm swinging straight and the other swung up into a ninety-degree crook. It is those uniformly bent elbows, and not the potentially playful costumes, that tell us how seriously we need to take the idea of regimentation in this piece.

The feeling of constraint—of pulling up short, of stopping the motion before it can be completed—becomes stronger and stronger as the music grows louder and faster. There are lifts and leaps, but they are quickly terminated. There are swirling arms, but they are instantly blocked by other arms. Everything is accomplished speedily and efficiently, almost too speedily to feel like dance. Even Amber Star Merkens, the brilliant soloist at the center of this piece, cannot help but convey a slightly marionette-like quality as she executes her super-quick moves in time to the music.

Morris deploys the ensemble of fifteen with military, indeed with mathematical, precision. The piece starts with Merkens alone onstage, at first still, then moving in silence, and finally dancing to the introductory notes of the piano (played beautifully, in this performance, by the talented Colin Fowler). She is replaced by two men, Dallas McMurray and William Smith III, who give a charming if exceedingly abbreviated version of the kind of knockabout “stupid men’s dance” that Morris first introduced in L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato. After that comes a mixed group of three more dancers, then a different group of four, and finally the final group of five: a numerical buildup that in some ways parallels Beethoven’s musical buildup, but that also draws on Morris’s long-term fascination with the way numbers combine. Here that obsession plays out over the course of the piece, as we get every possible breakdown of fifteen dancers, including, toward the end, five trios in which each middle figure is successively swung up in a skyward kick—though these kicks, like everything else in the dance, are really too rapid to deserve the verb “swing.”

This is not to say that all fifteen performers are visible all the time. On the contrary, the numbers fluctuate constantly. At one point there are four couples onstage, each doing a version of the initial McMurray/Smith hitting-dance, though because there are only seven men in the piece, the eighth “stupid man” has to be played by a woman. (Morris loves symmetry, but he loves a slight asymmetry even more.) At other times, the number of dancers sweeping across the stage might be seven, or six, or five, and whatever it is, it will soon change to something else. The visual effect is of an ebb and flow of bodies, with the numbers rising and falling to the music—“like the alternating play of the waves,” as the Beethoven libretto has it. When the whole group is present at once, Merkens is often at the center, doing something impossibly difficult while the other fourteen swirl around her in their variously recombining subgroups. The dance ends on a rousing climax, with all hands onstage, all fifteen Xes facing triumphantly toward us.

And yet, despite the showstopper of an ending, I didn’t find myself responding exuberantly to A Choral Fantasy—not, at any rate, the way I responded to Four Saints in Three Acts, which appeared on the bill with it at BAM. This is not to say that I will never come around. I am on record as viewing Morris’s Four Saints with some suspicion when I first saw it in London in the summer of 2000, and I know it took at least two more performances in Berkeley for me to perceive its substantial merits. It was only when I learned to let go of my demand for coherence—learned to see that Morris, just like Gertrude Stein in her libretto, was giving us one delightful thing after another, with little or no regard for narrative logic—that I became capable of sensing the emotional depths in his production of Four Saints. Perhaps I will some day adapt to the very different demands of A Choral Fantasy, if I am allowed to see it often enough.

Context has a great deal to do with how you take in a new dance, and if the seemingly relaxed manner of Four Saints made the regimentation of the newer work stand out in Brooklyn, something like the reverse happened in San Francisco, where Mark Morris’s latest ballet premiered on a program showcasing three different choreographers. Beaux is a work for nine male dancers, set to music by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The dance’s obsession with the number nine matches and indeed exceeds A Choral Fantasy’s preoccupation with fifteen. In the course of the work we get every possible combination of three and six or three times three; my favorite segment, the last, contains a three-by-three array of dancers who gradually move forward in criss-crossing leaps. The work also features ragged, uneven trios—solo dancers watched by pairs of bystanders, or duets observed by solitary individuals—as well as more connected threesomes who twine and untwine around their anchoring figure. Premiering as it did on Valentine’s Day, with each of the nine performers awarded a single red rose during the curtain call, Beaux at first came across as a work which was alluding, at least in part, to homosexual love. But I suspect that the farther we get from that initial date, the more the dance will speak to us on its own terms: as a piece of ballet which, in its graceful ease of manner, strongly evokes the more relaxed traditions of folk and modern dance.

The score for Beaux (which, like the dance, is filled with structures and rhythms based on three and nine) actually consists of two separate pieces that Martinu wrote for the harpsichord: one a 1935 Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, the other a smaller piece for solo harpsichord, written the same year, that Morris has interpolated into the middle of the concerto. As with all his other dances—including Four Saints and A Choral Fantasy, which pay tribute, respectively, to the playful allusiveness of Virgil Thomson and the resounding forcefulness of Beethoven—Beaux stems first and foremost from its music. The harpsichord is a strange instrument for a twentieth-century concerto, and it is an even stranger instrument for a ballet performed in a large opera house. Its thin, chiming, temperamentally prim voice projects oddly in such a big space, and this oddness is exacerbated by Martinu’s tendency to insert discordant modernist notes within the neo-classical melody. Like Morris himself, Martinu must have been something of a provocateur, pushing his medium to unexpected places in just the way Morris does his. That both of them are quiet provocateurs, at least in this case, is partly what gives Beaux its singular feeling.

The dance conveys a sense of companionship pleasurably enjoyed, a kind of pastoral of fellow-feeling, not unlike what we got in the earlier, more cheerful phases of Morris’s Socrates. Here each dancer, while playing his own independent role in the group, also contributes to the concerted shape of the whole, but the impulse behind the unified movement always feels voluntary rather than coerced. Without ballerinas to lift and twirl, without a toe shoe or a pas de deux in sight, these young fellows seem released into a golden age of dance: dance as an expression of quiet contentment, or mild showing off, or strong affection, or playful imitations of flight—dance as something relaxed and fun and above all natural.

This stood in marked contrast to the piece that preceded Beaux on the San Francisco Ballet’s February program, a 2006 work by Wayne McGregor called Chroma. I have only been exposed to McGregor’s work once before, through Frederick Wiseman’s documentary La Danse, but from these two samples alone, I feel safe in deducing that this British choreographer very much views himself as a ballet rebel. Unlike Morris’s quiet rebellion, however, McGregor’s is very loud. It’s not just that the indie-rock-new-music score is played at a frenetic level; it’s also that the extreme, highly acrobatic, and purposely ugly movements of the dancers are designed to scream out, “This is not your parents’ idea of ballet!” The new, however, turns out to bear a distinct resemblance to the old, in that McGregor’s choreography is just as rigid and dictatorial as anything the ballet traditionalists could have invented. None of the motions are what the human body would choose to do on its own, and many look positively painful. This is especially true in the case of the women, who (I suppose because their bodies are more flexible, or because they can be helped through their contortions by the partnering men) are used like pliable yet steel-riveted dolls, capable of twisting in all directions with the speed and suddenness of a rock-music beat. At the interval between this first piece and Morris’s, I heard one man say to another, “I had no idea women’s bodies could even do that.” I think this remark goes a long way toward explaining why I hated Chroma so much.

Having been bludgeoned for half an hour by McGregor’s frantic excesses, the San Francisco Ballet audience was in no condition to appreciate the calm subtleties of Morris’s harpsichord-attuned patterns. The appearance of casualness—which is in fact far more revolutionary in ballet than any kind of extreme acrobatics could be—led these first-time viewers to believe that nothing much was at stake. They could not see the hard work behind Beaux because it did not display itself as such (though, of course, even apparent naturalness has to be choreographed gesture by gesture, and then learned gesture by gesture, internalized so as to come across as the individual body’s own choices). When the twenty-five-minute piece ended, the audience applauded politely. They were not angry; they did not consciously feel provoked. But they did not really warm to the Mark Morris dance, especially in comparison to the candy-coated Wheeldon piece that followed it.

Much as I liked Beaux (and I liked it even better the second time, when I knew enough to skip the McGregor intro), I would hesitate to include it among Morris’s true masterpieces. I doubt I will ever love it as much as I love L’Allegro, or Dido and Aeneas, or The Hard Nut, or The Office, or Socrates, or any number of marvelous dances he has made for the Mark Morris Dance Group. That his strength as a choreographer—and, not incidentally, mine as a viewer—falls in that no-man’s-land between ballet, modern, folk dance, and popular dance probably has something to do with this. So does the fact that his own company, which is currently in wonderful shape, can execute his choreography much better than any outside group.

But for Morris to stick with what he knows, and knows he can do well, would defeat the purpose. Ballet, at this point, can use quiet provocateurs even more than modern dance can. Ballet needs Mark Morris. And the San Francisco Ballet, to its great credit, seems to understand this.

Wendy Lesser edits The Threepenny Review. Her latest book, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, is recently out in paperback.

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