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Friends of Distinction

Mark Morris rounds up pals Yo-Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov for a pair of new works.

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Tina Fehlandt, Marjorie Folkman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Mark Morris in Morris's The Argument.   

A one-night stand at BAM coupled the Mark Morris Dance Group with Morris's good buddies Yo-Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Ma played his cello onstage for the two New York premieres on the program, Falling Down Stairs and The Argument, and in the pit for the familiar Rhymes With Silver, set to a Lou Harrison score. Rarely does one hear sound as vibrant and keenly phrased as Ma's at a dance concert.

Falling Down Stairs, created originally for film in 1994, is actually part of a project initiated by Ma. This undertaking, called "Inspired by Bach," has Ma tackling the six Bach suites for unaccompanied cello, collaborating on each with an artist from a different discipline (among these a Kabuki onnagata, an ice-dancing team, and a garden designer). The Ma-Morris combination uses the third suite.

In his choreography, Morris seems to refer to the modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey and her penchant for choral movement, often enhanced by multi-level structures. Morris incorporates the prayerful, scrupulously organized, and sublimely lyrical elements that are his inheritance from Humphrey and uses risers that suggest a stairway to Heaven. His own signature is evident in the working of a far more complex musical sense than Humphrey commanded and in a very contemporary appetite for incipient chaos, which offsets the suffocation induced when the virtues of clarity and restraint are exercised with a holier-than-thou air. The costumes by Isaac Mizrahi (another chum) express Morris's mix in capsule form: The dancers are arrayed in sweeping jewel-toned velvet robes, but these are cut to reveal their wearers' scanties whenever the action heats up.

I found the allusions to modern-dance history clever, affectionate, and reverent all at once -- as is typical of Morris -- but, in the end, overworked. The aspect of Falling Down Stairs I relished most was its evocation of an early work by Morris himself, The Death of Socrates, in which an all-male cast in togas moved in slow motion from one evocative pose to another, flesh and soft folds of fabric suggesting molten marble. Morris wasn't the first to try this ploy either.

With The Argument, Morris takes a tack new for him -- though it's a familiar one for the choreographic art. The piece depicts three man-woman couples, each pair intimately attached, and emphasizes the friction that "relationships" include. (In the past, Morris's focus has been on different aspects of love, especially the bonds of community.) Granted, Morris takes as a given the romances that brought about the pairings; he's showing us what happens after that first blast of unmarred bliss. Each pair exists at a different stage -- and in a different kind -- of alienation. One couple is likely to self-destruct for good; the others will probably manage to hold on, partly because they've accepted their intermittent disaffection as an integral part of their history.

Since this is a neatly dovetailed piece, the couples meet in passing; they even glance at change-partners-and-dance alternatives. Inevitably, though, they return, as all lovers (friendly or antagonistic) do, to that sealed-off world in which no one exists except oneself and one's "other self." Morris is so profoundly musical, one tends not to connect him with stories, but in its exploration of psyches, The Argument is not merely Tudoresque but almost literary (Chekhovian, perhaps, with infusions of John Updike), "about" something that dancing needs mime to help it express.

The dancers here were Baryshnikov with the wonderful Marjorie Folkman, Morris with his longtime colleague Tina Fehlandt, and Shawn Gannon with another MMDG veteran, Ruth Davidson. For the record, the lushly moving Morris danced Misha off the stage, but Baryshnikov looked to be having a bad night, his dancing unusually small, thin, and tight; the audience adored him anyway.


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