Mark Morris at BAM: A bit of a letdown

From Mark Morris's Crosswalk. (Photograph by Elaine Mayson)

From Mark Morris’s Crosswalk. (Photograph by Elaine Mayson)

Most artists, like most people, have their ups and downs. Choreographer Mark Morris may have had an entire down year recently, to judge from a program of three dances from 2013 that the Mark Morris Dance Group presented at BAM’s opera house in late April. (This was the second of two programs that MMDG offered; I didn’t see the first.)

Crosswalk is a work for 11 dancers set to a Carl Maria von Weber piece for clarinet and piano (his Grand Duo Concertant, op. 48), and upon hearing the clarinet, my first thought was that Weber’s playful, spritely use of the instrument would bring forth the same qualities in the dancing. In many small ways, it did, but overall the piece seemed pedestrian, sometimes literally so—part of it involved dancers walking across the stage in planes, as if they really were using crosswalks. It’s as if Morris had observed the jostling disorder of a busy intersection (which, coincidentally, is just the human scene that the artificial intelligence named Ava longs to watch in the current film Ex Machina) and had refined the experience into something neat and slightly stylized. The picture is enjoyable, but the dance doesn’t seem dense or varied enough to support its length of roughly 20 minutes.

Jenn and Spencer, which followed after a pause, is an odd landmark. In my experience of Morris’s work, he doesn’t focus on single performers for long; he has seldom made the extended solos and duets that occupy many choreographers and (one imagines) keep their leading dancers happy. But then there are no leading dancers in Morris’s company, at least in the usual sense; MMDG is a democratic, decidedly non-hierarchical assemblage. Morris’s vision, shaped by his early years in a folk-dance ensemble, is all about group dynamics, forms of community, even (as Joan Acocella pointed out long ago) approaches to Utopia. The only exception I’ve seen is his danced version of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, in which the singers are relegated to the orchestra pit, and which, like Purcell’s original, is largely populated with clearly defined individuals.

Large-scale duets may not be nearly as uncommon for Morris as I think, but this dark drama of attraction and repulsion seemed to me out of character, as much for its depiction of conflict as for the size of its cast. The work is responsive to the music, Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano, a collection of six short movements in which rhythmic and harmonic patterns are repeatedly smashed with discords, but it ends up feeling repetitive, and one imagines its intensity would have more impact on a smaller stage and in a smaller house.

From Mark Morris's Spring, Spring, Spring. (Photograph by Ken Friedman)

From Mark Morris’s Spring, Spring, Spring. (Photograph by Ken Friedman)

What ought to have been the pièce de résistance arrived after an intermission: Spring, Spring, Spring, Morris’s take on Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which was first presented as a dance a century before this version premiered. In an interview with Marina Harss for a New York Times article published in advance of the company’s BAM appearances, Morris declared that he wasn’t interested in the dance’s original scenario. That’s fine; other choreographers have discarded it too. He also chose—again following what some others have done—to use an altered version of Stravinsky’s score, in this case an arrangement for jazz trio created by The Bad Plus, whose pianist, Ethan Iverson, used to be Morris’s music director.

The music that results is wonderfully compelling stuff, which accentuates the percussive elements, frequently delivers unexpected sonorities, and yet still creates the same potent impressions, of creeping unease and jagged strangeness and a sometimes-scary sort of primitive, tribal power. What’s surprising is that Morris has created a dance full of lightness and brightness, which sits uneasily atop Stravinsky’s music. Maidens in flowing dresses with flowers garlanding their hair, bare-chested men wearing brightly colored pants, chains and wobbles and tilts and lots of circles: it’s pretty, and a nice way to welcome spring, but very little of this fits the tone of the music as I hear it. Occasionally, Morris’s choreography achieves a ceremonial effect that’s slightly alien and hence just right, as when he arranges three ranks of shoulder-to-shoulder dancers close together near the back of the stage. They bend forward and back, their linked arms folding and releasing those in front of or behind them—it’s passing strange, and it gave me a bit of a shudder.

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