Music at the heart of things

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday September 30, 2014
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Mark Morris came to Berkeley with his dancers last weekend, as he has done pretty much every year for the last quarter-century. From the mixed bills we saw, I don't see any signs of his imagination or his invention getting stale. It was a bewildering weekend, since his short pieces are the most intense. Each one has its own style and way of being, and they're as different as gold bugs are from birds, snakes and trees. Only one of them, his version of The Rite of Spring ("Spring Spring Spring"), which had its world premiere here in summer 2013 at the Ojai North Festival, had we ever seen before.

Morris is widely regarded as the greatest choreographer alive. The Telegraph (UK) recently claimed he's "the greatest living artist in any art-form." He was probably the first major performing artist to be able to say, "Yes, I'm gay, get over it," and make work that was gay, but not of the ghetto at all. The gay element is always there, but it's never the reason for being. He is one of the architects of the modern attitude, with gay rights more or less taken for granted by all younger people as part of a larger humanity.

He hit his stride in the 70s in New York as a youth from Seattle with Hyacinthine curls and a phenomenal dance-gift, out-dancing everyone else in the companies he was part of, then making piercingly beautiful dances to phonograph recordings. He worked against the grain of post-modern dance by putting the music he used at the heart of things. While others were using the hypnotic music of Reich and Glass to freeze the mind, Morris used country songs, Indian ragas, Baroque oratorios, music that was widely loved, somewhere.

His nearest predecessor in this was Paul Taylor, the bisexual jock who became Martha Graham's young star before breaking away to make dances in her idiom with a true musical drive, using anything from Bach to the Andrews Sisters for his motor impulse. Two of Morris' latest works had echoes of Taylor, but he's stolen from everybody and made everything new, always with a level of musical insight that outstrips anyone's except Balanchine's.

Cal Performances has given him a second home. They've commissioned a lot of his work, presented the Western Hemisphere and world premieres of his most important works, and made him musical director of the Ojai Music Festival, the first time a dancer has ever been given such a post. Balanchine could have done it, but nobody ever thought of giving him a job like that.

The seven pieces we saw this past weekend were set to music by, Program A: Ludwig van, Ivor Cutler, Henry Cowell, and Mozart's student and Beethoven's friend Johann Nepomuk Hummel; and Program B: Samuel Barber, Franz Weber, and Igor Stravinsky/the Bad Plus; they were all "about the music." Program A was likeable in the extreme; Program B was brilliant but headachy.

Let's start with the latter, which felt like an extension of Ojai North, in which Morris made a big deal out of the West Coast maverick composers Lou Harrison, Cowell, and Hollywood emigre Stravinsky. They were all iconoclastic, and made many rude noises that set the tired businessmen's teeth ajar. Cowell was perhaps the first to attack the piano with his entire forearm; he was a rhythmic genius. Morris reprised his fabulous dance to Cowell's quartets Mosaic and United (which Cowell composed in San Quentin, where he'd been imprisoned for homosexuality) as a prelude to his version of The Rite of Spring, which concluded last weekend's program. Frankly, I wish he'd repeated that format instead of substituting another experimental American piece, Barber's Excursions, another worthy maverick piece of music, to which he's choreographed a well-made dance that's too much of the same thing as the piece de resistance. Excursions is full of ostinato bass – the English for this is obstinate, and it's the predecessor to Pink Cadillac, a lot of the same damned thing, like head-banging so far as I'm concerned. The only pleasant section was one based on the cowboy tune "Streets of Laredo," in which the dancers threw their legs over their (invisible) horses and spun (invisible) lassos, echoing Agnes de Mille's Rodeo. In the next section, one guy rolled into the center and held his head in his hands as the others gestured "Why me?" to insistent, blaring chords in the piano. Periodically, dancers marched around the perimeter.

This was followed by Crosswalk, set to a brilliant grand duo for clarinet and piano by Carl Maria von Weber, with dancers walking, skipping and bothering each other. In particular, the eight guys bother the three girls, and the girls get their revenge. They particularly mess with Laurel Lynch, who by the end is mad as hell at them and gets the last gesture, alone center-stage and furious at the black-out. I do not at this stage understand how it fit the music, but it always did, with the guys (especially Brandon Randolph) clarifying the attitude, skipping off as if whatever had just happened was nothing. It seemed to be about defense of territory.

Morris abandoned the virgin sacrifice of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  and transformed the whole into geometric magic. The original scenario was propitiatory magic – we give you, O God of the Sun, a virgin for your bride, in hopes that you will bring an end to the winter and renew the cycle of fertility. Morris understands that nobody nowadays thinks like that. He's made his dance a fantasia of rhythms and trajectories that scores the face of the earth in diagonals and circles, stomping some patterns in and making others light and springy. He's made the only dance to this score since Pina Bausch's that is not an embarrassment. Dallas McMurray's solo in the middle of it was heroic.

Program A was much more delightful, but the pleasures were so evanescent and specific they are almost indescribable – you can't be sure you remember what you think you saw. Morris' imagination is teeming with images.  I always feel at a Morris premiere like one of the blind men in the Sufi story of "The Blind Men and the Elephant." The one who touched the tail said, "It's hairy"; the one who touched the ear said, "It's leathery"; etc. With a new piece of Morris', I never know what's hit me till I've seen it more than once. About Program A, which I adored, I don't know what to say, except that Laurel Lynch as Sally in our Alley danced like a fairy, and that the polka of Festival Dance is a glorious piece of choreography.