“I’ve never worked the circuit,” Mark Morris once told me, with the casual disdain that often laced his interviews in the bad old days. “I’ve never done the glamorous cocktail parties to raise money from creeps. The honorary committee for the benefit? Maybe Liz Taylor will show up? I hate that.” But that was in another country, and since then, Morris has emerged as one of the most successful artist-entrepreneurs around. His company’s audience is vast and devoted, ballet companies beg for his choreography, and he’s built a pioneering dance complex in Brooklyn with 31,000 square feet of office, rehearsal, and teaching space. Glamorous cocktail parties? There was a nice one at Escada last year. And he no longer terms rich people “creeps.”
But if he’s learned to play the game, he’s managed to do so while keeping faith with the dancers and musicians who sustain his vision. His choreography remains passionately true to his principles, or rather his principle: It’s all about the music. Opening night of his annual season at bam earlier this month marked the company’s 600th consecutive performance to live music, an achievement unparalleled in modern dance.
Morris’s way with music—he translates it into movement almost literally—is often cited as the key to his greatness. To me that fidelity is a constant irritant. The sight of every last chord being nailed down in a jump or a swing strikes me as completely uninformative. Yet he’s a master in other realms of stagecraft: He can suggest character and story, and he can spin a powerful web of mood and mystery. Music is indeed a key to his sensibility, but sometimes it just locks him up. The two new works on the BAM program went right across the spectrum of his gifts and struggles: One showed Morris at his best, the other at his most helpless.
“Sometimes their arms shoot up in a quick gesture of prayer—sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
All Fours, set to Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, is the keeper. Morris’s choreography moves through and beyond the notes of this nervous, scurrying, demanding music, using it to evoke an outer world of perilous uncertainty, and an inner state of—not grace, exactly, but a willingness to entertain the questions. The outer-world sections, danced by an ensemble in somber outfits that might be street clothes, are harsh and desperate; you can almost see the bars of the cage. The group stays in a loose cluster, often in unison or with brief, repeated movements flickering from one to the other. Sometimes their arms shoot up in a quick gesture of prayer—sinners in the hands of an angry God, I kept thinking, and when I looked up Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon, I found his text from Deuteronomy delightfully appropriate: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” (Dance-dissertation writers, jot that down.)
The inner-world sections, danced by two couples in white, project more spaciousness and incipient freedom. The choreography is often quick and busy, as it was earlier, but the dancers—Craig Biesecker and Bradon McDonald, and Marjorie Folkman and Julie Worden—aren’t so restrained and self-absorbed. Now we see the line of the body, the clarity of the movement. In a foursome that resonates with unspoken drama, a long, level gaze ties a man and a woman together while the other couple darts about them—until the two men touch hands, and the two women likewise. Later, all four line up to gaze offstage, then tilt quizzically to get a better look. What’s hidden? These passages, intense as fiction, show what Morris can do when he loosens that yoke with the music, and lets the rest of his imagination run free.
Then came Violet Cavern, an uncomfortable excursion across a very different landscape. The company commissioned the score from an eclectic jazz improvisational trio called the Bad Plus, whose pianist, Ethan Iverson, was Morris’s music director for four years. There are some richly propulsive sections, but much of the music is just a blur of sound effects, and Morris gives no indication that he ever connected with it. Long before the 50 minutes are done, he’s run out of ideas. BAM rang with loving cheers anyway, and Morris took his bows beaming, jammed into a semi-respectable white suit.