March Dance: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Graham!

After a dance week of occasional ups and all too many downs, Mark Morris came to the rescue with a program of three works previously unseen in New York, one a world premiere. The venue was his own elegant and spacious building practically opposite BAM, his habitual stomping ground, and the three new works were scaled to fit the small studio theater up on the fifth floor. There were times when the action grew so dense that I felt I was too close to the dancers, but at other times this proximity was rewarding. Everything was set to live chamber music–never more than six musicians at a time–which added to the intimacy.

The triumph was the final piece, Festival Dance, set to a piano trio by Johann Hummel, who as a young boy had been taught (for free) and even housed by Mozart, and who grew up to be a close friend of Beethoven’s; admired by Haydn (and his successor at Esterházy); a teacher of Czerny and Mendelssohn; and a friend of Schubert’s. Hummel’s trio embodies both the classical discipline of Haydn and Mozart and the early romanticism of their successors, giving Morris an opportunity to create what is perhaps his most classically structured work, yet one that also avails itself of the ease and flow of the Romantics.

First, there’s an affectionate couple in a modest duet, then a formal arrangement of one woman (Laurel Lynch) against a quartet of men, and one man (William Smith III) against a quartet of women. This formality is never abandoned through the piece’s extended three movements (Waltz, March, Polka), but the groups splinter and reform, the six couples in constant realignment and interaction. Morris shows us that he can choreograph a conventionally put together dance in a way that both contains and unleashes his personal vision. It’s charming, it’s exhilarating, it’s unexpected–and what a rousing finale!

The Muir gives us three couples dancing to a series of Beethoven’s settings of Irish and Scottish folk songs, “Sally in Our Alley” the best known of them. This is Mark Morris working–in a very reduced way–in his “L’Allegro, il Penseroso” mode. It holds its own, it’s coherent and pleasing, but it seemed to me not much more than elevated filler.

Petrichor takes on a beautiful but not necessarily dancey Villa-Lobos quartet. It’s unique to Morris in that it utilizes eight women and no men, showing off the exceptional quality of his current female dancers. Lynch, as in Festival Dance, is especially open, strong, intelligent, appealing; in a very few years, she’s made herself an important element of the company. Julie Worden and Maile Okamura are as beautiful and committed as ever. The new young men (a number of the senior males have retired) are working well, and Morris is giving them opportunities. Petrichor has a colorful urgency–it’s very much a group work, highly propulsive and even gripping. But it has to take a back seat to Festival Dance, which may not be on Morris’ highest level, but comes close. That’s good enough for eyes starved for work of large merit.

Two less famous but still highly visible choreographers have been at the Joyce in the past two weeks, both with mixed results. First, Larry Keigwin, with an hour-long piece called Exit. Keigwin works all over the place, usually with fresh New Yorkerish wit and a real grasp of how to handle groups both large and small. Alas, Exit is one of what I think of as “infernal disco” ballets, all sleaze, aggression, camp and relentless in-your-faceness. Lighting to match. Yes, there’s invention here, and gallant dancers, but all I wanted was to get out of that disco.

Doug Varone followed Keigwin into the Joyce, and though I very much admire his work, his hour-plus Chapters From a Broken Novel was also something of a disappointment. The “Chapters” are 20 fragments with titles like “Ron Tells the Truth” and “Ruby Throated Sparrows,” suggesting some kind of hidden narrative, but it all seemed arbitrary to me. There was a handsome silver cloth billowing above, and an effective original score (by David Van Tieghem), and as always Varone marries visceral dance movement to intense human feeling, but for me it didn’t add up. Too much was going on, and too little was making sense.

Out of the past came the work of two important women. Trisha Brown is still with us, of course, but her program at Dance Theater Workshop featured three old pieces, to the great delight of her admirers in the audience. I’ve seen too little of her work (I was hanging out at City Ballet when she was at her peak) to have strong connections to it or nostalgia for it, and must report that these pieces–at least as currently performed–have no resonance for me. Foray Forêt, for nine dancers, has interesting effects–the playful Robert Rauschenberg costumes; an out-of-tune marching band that passes by offstage a couple of times–but the minimalist movement just baffles me. People stroll around and fall to the floor. Hands are raised, elbows are bent, feet flex inwards. People pop in and out of the wings, often ingeniously, with surprise jumps and catches, but Twyla does this better. (In fact, the whole piece made me think of Twyla underwater.) Everything’s distanced and pallid, at least as danced by these capable but generally anonymous dancers.

For M.G.: The Movie opens with a guy running and/or jogging around the stage–many times. Another guy stands with his back to the audience throughout the entire piece. People roll into the wings. There are offstage shrieks and explosions. The runner is back, mostly going backward now. I wish I found all this involving, but what I find in it is a choreographer who’s so interested in her own vocabulary that she just assumes we are, too.

Her famous solo Watermotor, from 1978, was performed by Neal Beasley–the first time a man has danced it; in fact, the first time anyone but Brown has danced it. He’s a talented dancer, but as he performs it, it seems without a point. Only when you watch a video of Brown herself does everything become clear: She was a strong yet lyrical dancer, compelling, beautiful. She is her dance, and without her, the work melts away. Unlike Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, Tharp or Morris, she doesn’t transcend herself.

And speaking of Martha Graham, her company, too, was back in town, at the Rose, with several programs of varying levels of interest. I managed to avoid Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa–my instincts of self-preservation are still in play. Instead, I chose the program honoring her collaboration with the celebrated artist Isamu Noguchi: Embattled Garden, Cave of the Heart, Appalachian Spring. These, unlike the Trisha Brown repertory, are pieces I grew up on and love. How effective are the current performances? More than they were a few years back. Embattled Garden has remembered that it’s not only dramatic-erotic but also comedic. Yes, Graham’s garden is Eden, but it’s also us. What plays itself out there among Adam and Eve, Lilith and the Stranger, is what’s always happened and always will happen. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch as Lilith got the sardonic edge just right. And of course Noguchi’s tree (of knowledge) and bed of dangerous reeds are eternally perfect.

Cave of the Heart isn’t easy–Medea can be underplayed or overplayed. Miki Orihara didn’t reveal her unbounded malevolence until late in the game, but then she was utterly convincing as she shuddered inside Noguchi’s burst of golden filaments that somehow turn into a vile insect. Tadej Brdnik is the right Jason–masculine, arrogant and stupid. Unfortunately, Katherine Crockett is now overdoing and coarsening her “Chorus.”

She was simpler and more convincing as the Pioneering Woman in Appalachian Spring, Graham’s most famous piece. What a beauty it is, and how moving! Mau
rizio Nardi is not, for me, the Revivalist–he’s too suave, even a touch cute. (The original, back in 1944, was Merce Cunningham.) Blakeley White-McGuire as the Bride was appropriately restrained and ecstatic. And Brdnik, again outstanding, was virile and filled with hope as the Husbandman. The performance as a whole, though far from exalted, succeeded in suggesting the greatness of the work. Appalachian Spring was there–and that’s what matters. Graham may no longer be in fashion, but we can’t afford to lose the best of her; what has American modern dance produced that’s finer?

March Dance: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Graham!