A Brief Glimpse of Mark Morris As Performer and Choreographer

Last week in this space I was complaining about the inferior choreographers we’ve been exposed to lately. Then, as if in answer to a prayer, Mark Morris turned up at B.A.M., giving me grounds for new complaint. To begin, why only four performances?

Morris, as I’ve pointed out before, is New York–based-in fact, his company has a magnificent new home directly across the street from B.A.M. And yet New York sees less of him than of Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, even the newly revitalized Martha Graham. New works sometimes don’t get shown here for months, even years-when will we see his full-evening Sylvia?-and years go by between performances of major works from the past. (No doubt the reason is financial.) Not only do we feel neglected, but the absence of continuity-we catch the repertory only in unpredictable glimpses-makes it hard to follow his development. After all, he’s created more than 100 pieces since 1971, and although just about everything from his apprentice years is long gone (and probably forgotten, even by him), there’s a lot left. As it is, we seem to drop in on pieces almost randomly (or they on us).

This year he’s given us a mini-smorgasbord of five works, going back a decade to Somebody’s Coming to See Me Tonight, one of his most lyrical and lovely pieces, set to a group of Stephen Foster songs that were performed beautifully by six singers and a chamber group. The dancers are in 19th-century-inflected costumes, in various grays and taupes. The dances are mostly duets and trios that slide easily into each other, with occasional references to square dance and other folk dances, yet with no hint of pastiche. The suppleness and lightness of Morris’ dancers are particularly appropriate to the melting quality of the Foster songs-is there music more melodious than this? The work as a whole is plangent, almost mournful, yet it’s uplifting, perhaps because-like Taylor’s Sunset and Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering-it suggests community: Here are these people, together in this place.

The program opened with a charmer: Morris himself, in a funny number, From Old Seville, to Manuel Requiebros’ A Esa Mujer. There’s a miniature bar downstage left, manned by the bored John Heginbotham with a cigarette dangling from his lips. The joke is that Morris, at his bulkiest, is matched with tiny Lauren Grant in a series of castanet-clicking, heel-stomping Spanishisms which he keeps trying to back out of and she keeps summoning him back to. A fourth strong presence is a rapidly diminishing bottle of red wine. The miracle here is Morris’ dancing-both delicate and large-scale. How interesting that the most talented of modern-dance choreographers-Graham, Taylor, Cunningham, Tharp, Morris-have all been such extraordinary performers.

Morris’ impact as a dancer asserted itself even more forcefully in Rhymes with Silver, a work from 1997 in which he no longer performs. This very long- too long-piece is set to a commissioned score by Lou Harrison and is danced in front of Howard Hodgkin’s strong- too strong-backdrop of huge red and lime-green wavy lines. Sixteen dancers, almost the entire company, are on stage, working out Morris’ complex take on everything from Eastern dance to martial arts. Suddenly Bradon McDonald rushes in, curls bouncing up and down, and you know at once, from the swooping, surging movement, that this was once a Morris role. For me, the strongest section of Rhymes with Silver is an extended passage in which a single man stands stock still while McDonald storms around the stage, darting in front of and behind him, using him as a lodestar. You can see Mark Morris, even though he isn’t there. But as usual, Morris’ Asian mode seemed to me dutiful at best, and most of this piece left me uninvolved.

On opening night, a well-known playful duet, Silhouettes, sometimes performed by two men, sometimes by two women, was danced by dynamic little Grant and ravishing tall Julie Worden. But the contrast lay in more than size. Grant’s dancing is hard-hitting, on occasion almost brittle-she’s a little tight in the upper back and shoulders. Worden is expansive, her open back amazingly supple. The two women are interesting to see together, as an example of how such different physical types can satisfy Morris’ choreography, but the piece itself doesn’t repay repeated viewings.

Finally, there was a new piece-well, only six months old-called Rock of Ages. Like Morris’ V, a major effort from 2001 that was set to Schumann’s great piano quintet, it uses gorgeous Romantic chamber music, Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat. Rock of Ages is yet another example of how brilliantly, and effortlessly, Morris deploys dancers. Everything happens seamlessly, everything makes structural sense. The four dancers-there was a different cast at each performance-wear casual street dress, and their dance vocabulary also has the appearance of being casual: These are four people we might know, coming together naturally and easily. You can see how carefully Morris has worked out a specific vocabulary for the occasion-you can’t resist being pulled into its world of ambiguous yet telling gesture. Even so, as with V, I don’t find that the emotional content here is equivalent to that of music. Or is that too much to ask?

But beggars can’t be choosers. Whatever specific reservations we may have about him, we need Mark Morris.