The past three weeks at B.A.M. were given over to a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Mark Morris Dance Group—a proper cause for celebration. Morris chose to present a retrospective of his most famous works (although the most famous of all, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, was not on view—perhaps because it’s been seen here so frequently over the years). The programming was canny: Program A featured three big hits of the past; Program B, two operas; Program C, two works new to New York. Since Morris has made scores of pieces, what he showed us here was hardly the whole story, but it was enough to give audiences new to him a sense of his large and varied achievement, and enough to satisfy his ardent admirers, who—if they’re like me—would like to enjoy an annual revolving repertory, the way we can with Paul Taylor or once could with Martha Graham.
For many, the main event was the revival of Dido and Aeneas, a masterpiece Morris created in 1989 during his residency in Brussels and, to my mind, his single greatest work. The music is Henry Purcell’s ravishing opera from exactly 300 years earlier (although 1689 is now a disputed date), with its famous aria “When I am laid in earth …. ” But this is not a simple traversal of the score and its libretto; it honors the music, certainly, but deepens the tragedy and opens out into a meditation on love and gender, goodness and wickedness.
When we first saw Dido in New York, in 1990, it was dominated by the extraordinary charisma of Morris’ own performance in the double role of Dido and the Sorceress. What would happen now that he had retired from the two roles and not only handed them over to other dancers but divided them—Dido to a woman, Amber Darragh; the Sorceress to a man, Bradon McDonald? Not surprisingly, it makes an immense difference. Darragh has a noble and convincing presence that powerfully conveys Dido’s regality, her passion, her sorrow; she anchors the piece admirably. But she isn’t as highly charged as Morris was, and since she doesn’t also play the Sorceress, she can’t embody the duality of good and evil, of high-minded passion and raw sexuality, that the original concept suggested. (For a brilliant discussion of this, see Joan Acocella’s essential biography of Morris.) The loss is a deep one. Yet there’s a gain: Since we’re no longer gripped so relentlessly by the amazing tour de force of Morris’ performance, we’re freer to absorb the endless strengths and felicities of the work as a whole.
McDonald, hair flying, was an effective Sorceress, though again without all the power Morris brought to the role. Outstanding was Marjorie Folkman as Belinda—throughout the season, her intelligence, accuracy and dynamism were irresistible. Craig Biesecker’s Aeneas was appropriately handsome, indecisive, bland—and blond: In Morris’ Carthage, everyone has dark hair (how odd to see Julie Worden’s beautiful yellow hair sprayed black) except the foreigner—the man who will betray the Queen and sail away to found Rome. The singing was exquisite, the “Courtiers, Witches, Spirits, Sailors, and Conscience” impeccable.
Mark Morris is not the first major artist to reinterpret Dido and Aeneas. In 1900, at the start of his career, Edward Gordon Craig staged a highly innovative production, about which William Butler Yeats said that he had never seen anything more beautiful. He would not have been disappointed by the Mark Morris version.
I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about the other Morris opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, but it struck me once again as overlong, repetitious and basically uninteresting. Perhaps if you find the Gertrude Stein–Virgil Thomson original to be witty and charming, this one’s for you; to me, it’s fussy and self-conscious, and Morris has been too faithful to its tone and manner. But then I’m not high on faux-primitive, and I find relentlessly naïve religious jubilation very trying. The great pleasure in this production is the St. Ignatius of John Heginbotham. Like Folkman, he now illuminates everything he’s in, always dancing full out, yet with such delicate and humorous musicality! I’m sorry I can’t say the same for Michelle Yard as St. Teresa. She has a wonderful look, and she moves, but her dancing is all on one note, and her perpetual grin is a serious annoyance.
The two new pieces are oddities, ostensibly unalike in subject and tone but linked by the way they’re conceived. Cargo is one of those works about primitives—they’re barely dressed, they squat on their haunches and leap around hunched over and uncomprehending. Think Stone Age. Yes, it’s the creation of the world (the music is Milhaud’s La Création du Monde). The program clues us in: “Cargo Cults of the South Pacific believed that manufactured western goods (‘cargo’) were created for them by ancestral spirits.” In this case, the Western goods are a long, thin, bambooish pole that eventually is joined by two more such poles. The dancers are astounded, daunted, fascinated. They pick the poles up, pass them around, throw them, straddle them. Sometimes the poles become masts, sometimes spears, and sometimes little Lauren Grant dangles from them, either swinging back and forth or upside down. Eventually, one of the cultists takes the spear allusion too far, there’s a fierce if innocent jab and … they discover Death. It’s all ingenious, but to me, it seems dutiful rather than inspired.
Candleflowerdance, to Stravinsky’s minor Serenade in A, has a more sophisticated look. A few candles and jars of flowers are placed about—are they a memorial tribute to Susan Sontag, to whom the piece is dedicated? A reference to 9/11? There’s a dark green, oblong shape in the middle of the stage floor, bordered in white—it looks something like the top of a ping-pong table. Morris’ six dancers, in ordinary street dress, individually and in groups approach it, hop inside the demarcated area, sidle up to its edge, jump out and are replaced by others. There’s certainly a subtext here—about urban life, people coming together and engaging each other, aloneness and togetherness. But the piece seems motored less by these ideas, or by the music, than by Morris’ interest in playing with a self-imposed challenge—the restricted, arbitrarily delineated space—just as, in Cargo, he’s captivated by those poles. Both pieces look too much like exercises in problem-solving. They’re bristling with dance invention, fun for the dancers, amusing to see once—but then what?
Fortunately, the program on which they appeared was redeemed by a recent work called All Fours (2003), set to Bartók’s fourth string quartet—great music to which Morris responds fully and deeply. Perhaps the high point is the fourth-movement allegretto, in which Folkman and Worden perform a dense yet transparent duet—Folkman, in her everyday short skirt and simple top, all briskness and precision; Worden, her hair piled up on her head and wearing a kind of matronly dress, all suppleness and extension. This piece is on the level of an earlier triumph, Grand Duo, which appeared on Program A. These are works we need to see again and again, and without having to wait for another significant anniversary.