Mark Morris at the Crossroads Looks Hungrily East and West

Where is Mark Morris coming from? And where is he heading? These are the questions I ask myself after attending his just completed one-week season at B.A.M. There were two programs, comprising two oldies, two pieces from last year’s season and four works new to New York. That’s a lot to digest in a couple of days, particularly since no single one of the new works stood out, demanding attention; in fact, the most insistent statement of the season came from a dancer-the newly featured, and ravishing, Maile Okamura-not a dance.

Last year’s big hit was V , set to Schumann’s great piano quintet. I resisted it then; this time round, I was roused by the final movement, with its dynamic if sometimes corny affirmations of humanity (all that hugging). Am I going to come to like this very ambitious piece backwards, movement by movement? Maybe. But I suspect that when I back into the second movement (all that crawling), I’ll still be irritated by the heavy literalness of its response to the music. For me, even the parts of V I like seem superfluous-the music says it all. But for all its deficiencies, V is a big and heartfelt statement. This season’s four new works are modest in intention and modest in accomplishment.

The new work suggests that Morris is currently coming from two directions, East and West. Serenade -dedicated to the composer, the recently deceased Lou Harrison-and Kolam , with strong music by Zakir Hussain and Ethan Iverson, are Asian-inflected. Or, to put it another way, like the Javanese World Power seen two years ago, they are products of what skeptics might call the divine afflatus that rolls in from the East.

Serenade , this year’s Mark Morris solo, is divided into five sections, in each of which he deploys a different object. In the first, it’s a box on which he’s sitting; in the second, a length of brass pipe, which he (very slowly) presents to the audience. In the third, it’s a small fan (it goes nicely with the long black skirt and white blouse that Isaac Mizrahi has outfitted Morris in). In the fourth, it’s finger cymbals. In the fifth, it’s castanets. Needless to say, Morris has mastered the techniques these props demand, but the section I found most effective was the first, in which he’s seated on his box and moves only from the waist up. Here, his control and intensity are most evident; despite his advancing years and girth, the power of his gestures and poses is undiminished. How fortunate for this aging great dancer that he can choreograph for himself to his strengths, whereas Mikhail Baryshnikov, that greatest of dancers, has to depend on, say, Eliot Feld, whose current season he is now ornamenting.

If Serenade is vaguely Balinese, Kolam is specifically Indian. The curtain rises on a striking backdrop-a huge painting with broad, almost brutal, horizontal strokes, by Howard Hodgkin. One girl can be spotted in the dark downstage left. She’s upside-down in what friends more attuned than I am to the mysteries of the East assure me is a yoga posture. Soon we are seeing other dancers in another yoga position, hands and feet on the floor, bodies arched upwards in an inverted V. For a while, it looked as if Kolam was going to be a series of variations on these shapes, an interesting switch from the usual variations on specific movements, but that turned out to be my idea, not Morris’. His ballet turns into a complicated adventure in patterning, mostly (and surprisingly) symmetrical. The program notes explain: ” Kolam is the Tamil word for the art of decorating courtyards, walls, and places of worship using powders to draw intricate designs.” Which is why Kolam seems more decorative than anything else. It doesn’t add up, it just keeps prettily going.

The other two new works represent the other conspicuous strain in Morris’ recent development: He’s co-opting a number of Western cultural artifacts from the 1920′s and 30′s, trying to make them his own. His recension of Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) several years ago was a case in point. This season, he appropriated Richard Rodgers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936) and the once-celebrated Edith Sitwell/William Walton Façade (1923). Is it accidental that until now these works have been associated with George Balanchine-who first choreographed Slaughter for the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes -and Frederick Ashton, whose 1931 ballet to Façade was an early signature piece for the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet? And is this meant as an hommage or a challenge? If the latter, Balanchine and Ashton have nothing to worry about.

The piece to Slaughter is called Resurrection , and it’s parody-pastiche: Lots of showbizzy mannerisms, with a central couple-Okamura and Bradon McDonald-who end up dead (slaughtered) yet not dead (resurrected). It’s bright and cheerful and clever, as when a bevy of showgirls lying in a circle on the floor kick up their legs-they’re supine Rockettes. And it’s fun to watch the deceased Okamura tippy-toeing backwards through the oblivious chorus boys and girls. But if you know the Balanchine version-and it’s hard not to, since it’s constantly on view at City Ballet and elsewhere-it’s almost impossible to get it out of your head. And why would you want to?

Ashton’s Façade , although Sadler’s Wells used to bring it here 50 or so years ago, is far less well known than the Sitwell poems and the Walton score. In the late 40′s and early 50′s, they were immensely chic-I can remember at college gloating over the LP of Sitwell intoning her poems, and even memorizing some of their more outré lines. (Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett were other British imports of the day, and, of course, this is when Sadler’s Wells first appeared in America.) Façade is cultural history, and Mark Morris has pounced on it wittily, though I don’t understand why he’s renamed it Something Lies Beyond the Scene . (When he changes a title, does he think he makes the work his own?) Morris and three of his dancers stand in the pit reciting the poems, and the rest of the company acts them out onstage in an oddly literal way, becoming birds, trees, an elephant, etc., as the poetry suggests these images. This piece is charmingly inventive, and that’s about it

As for Maile Okamura, she is a slight, lithe, dark-haired beauty-a compellingly vivid presence whatever she’s doing, and she was doing just about everything. She has attack, grace, charm-and that unmistakable quality that is dance charisma: Your eyes seek her out and stay on her. But the whole company was looking wonderful-gorgeous Julie Worden (a terrific cowgirl in the revival of Going-Away Party ), pint-sized Lauren Grant, impressive Amber Merkens, stalwart Marjorie Folkman, omnipresent skinny John Heginbotham, and on and on. They clearly love dancing what Morris gives them to dance, and he reciprocates by helping them look so good.

But he himself seems to have reached a difficult moment in his creative life. It’s clear now that he hopes to absorb everything in the universe, but his response to his latest interests is less full and resonating than his response in his early years to the work of Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Purcell, Monteverdi. Their music, you feel, is where he really lives-there, and in those scores that nourish his lifelong passion for folk dancing.

Mark Morris is now at the age Balanchine was when New York City Ballet came into existence, with Apollo , Serenade , Concerto Barocco , Symphony in C behind him and 35 years of masterpieces to go. Balanchine also devoured genres, but it was always the dance possibilities in specific pieces of music that compelled him. Although Morris is famously musical, he seems today to be primarily propelled less by music than by his large intellectual appetite: He throws himself at new enthusiasms, digests them, and moves on. This season suggests, at least to me, that he doesn’t yet know what he’s moving on to. He’s as fecund as ever, and as fluent, but not as focused.