The program offered by the Mark Morris Dance Group in its brief sojourn at BAM consisted of two works, one displaying the choreographer at his most subdued, the other at his most extravagant. Medium, new this season, is quiet and inconclusive, seemingly a meditation on the mysterious journey of the soul between this life and the next. It’s set to John Harbison’s “November 19, 1828,” the date being that on which Franz Schubert died, at the age of 31. The program tells you so, in case you didn’t know it already, but if you look at the dance without this information, you’re hard put to understand its suggestions. (You also need to figure out that the title of the dance refers to Harbison’s “channeling” Schubert for Morris, an admirer of both composers, whose music he has worked with before.) Equipped with these clues, you still don’t fare all that well. The choreography, while masterly in its stage patterning, lacks a firm overarching structure and makes only the most fragile emotional impact. Medium seems to be preoccupied with something the choreographer knows and feels but hasn’t yet found the means of making accessible to his audience.
A sextet, the piece opens with the figures in silhouette, three stretched out on the floor and three standing – one behind the other at first, so the unfolding of a single totem into discrete, rushing bodies is astonishing and eerie. The trios move in alternation as light from above picks them out, the grounded people waving their limbs like neophyte swimmers or fledglings learning to fly. Phrases that look like dancing (fluid, rhythmic) are intercut with pedestrian moves (too many of the latter borrowed from Morris’s earlier works). Further into the proceedings, spates of folk dance bubble up – lusty, bounding jumps, emphatically flexed feet, and purposeful strides. The most astute section has the dancers working as twosomes – one all-female, one all-male, one mixed, the distribution being part of Morris’s now-familiar gender agenda. The same passage is marked by fleeting appearances and abrupt vanishings as well as abandoned fallen figures. It’s at this point that you expect a kind of dramatic logic to bring the action to a climax and guide your response to the work. But all you get is these figures swathed in deep-hued chiffon (ruby, sapphire, earth-brown), palpating the darkness, still locked in ambiguity. The only way you know the dance is over is that the music ends.
The more substantial part of the program was devoted to the 1989 Dido and Aeneas (reviewed in these pages June 26, 1989), Morris’s treatment of the Purcell opera, with the dancers commandeering the stage, the orchestra and singers in the pit. After several viewings over the years, I found the choreography as wonderful as ever in its smart, sensitive, and wildly imaginative response to the music. Morris’s own performance in the dual role of Dido and the Sorceress – reported to be his farewell to the part – combines profound dignity and voluptuousness (as the tragic queen of Carthage) with flagrant, multilayered camp (as a wholly unleashed wicked witch). Miraculously, the two portrayals hang together – as surely as the renderings of Odette and Odile do when those Swan Lake roles are played by a ballerina who can encompass the vast range of the human psyche.