20/20 Vision

The Mark Morris Dance Group celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a three-week season at bam – exultantly danced and exultantly received – and the opening, just a minute’s walk from the theater, of a formidable new complex of studios, offices, and public spaces (these last still in the making). The bricks-and-mortar achievement, the first of its kind and scale for a barefoot-dance troupe in America, will anchor the company in the Fort Greene neighborhood; Morris, with his fecund imagination, energy, and generosity, projects it as a hub of creative activity.

One is inclined to have faith in his extravagant dream, given the lavish choreographic gift in evidence during the recent engagement. The repertory ranged from a masterwork, Gloria, made twenty years ago to a pair of pieces dated 2000; followers of Morris could easily name at least a dozen of his dances equal to the fifteen shown – in musical response, spatial craft, and soaring invention. One of the new works, Sang-Froid, is surely another keeper. Set to Chopin piano pieces familiar to dance fans from now-hallowed works by Duncan, Fokine, and Robbins, it continually refers back to that canon. Morris evokes the lyric and neo-Romantic impulses his great predecessors found in the music, at the same time commenting on those responses wryly yet lovingly.

Being a child of his time, he also finds a dark vein in the music; his dancers, clad in stripped-down black, repeatedly look over their shoulder, stricken by amorphous threats lurking in dark corners, or punctuate the buoyant proceedings with falls implying sudden death. Again and again, one woman appears lost in space, a postmodern amnesiac; another becomes a frantic captive. Images of play offset the motifs of dread: The dancers, turned 8-year-olds, play body-blocking games; a large, lush woman romps and skips as she might have long ago – blissfully, for herself – in her parents’ living room. One of Morris’s quintessential gifts is the ability to capture such moments, central to our being, and make them look almost improvised.

The other recent work shown at bam was Morris’s latest venture in opera staging, the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein Four Saints in Three Acts. At its London premiere last summer, the production formed a double bill with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas, and the choreographer’s dark, bizarre, impassioned rendering of the Purcell may have offset the unalloyed sweetness and mildness of his Four Saints reading. Surprisingly, Morris’s choreography for Four Saints has far less of an edge than either the arch, largely opaque text or the engaging score, which draws from an array of musical modes – most, but wittily not all, of them idiomatically American.

With the singers crowded into the pit, the dancers, dressed as Spanish peasants, cavort in a huge, sunnily lit stage space, as innocuous and innocent as figures in a Sunday-school pageant. Their landscape is a series of backdrops painted by Myra Calman in her familiar faux-primitif style, but without her usual ebullience and irony. The movement Morris has devised is dominated by soft overcurves, epitomized in the personal style of Michelle Yard, a beautiful, fleshy dancer, who is all loveliness and ease as Saint Teresa. Her portrayal finds its contrast in John Heginbotham’s Saint Ignatius – the incarnation of naif religious statuettes in white plaster representing gaunt guys in loincloths dedicated to the work of the Lord.

Deliberately, Morris has nothing much happen, having taken to heart – or taken as a challenge – Stein’s declaration, which he uses as an epigraph in the program, that “a real saint never does anything … and that is everything. Generally speaking anybody is more interesting doing nothing than doing something.” If he has miscalculated his ability to make a significant dance with nada going on, he has at least been blissfully consistent: Heaven is symbolized by a rope-and-board swing, set in gentle motion with the two main saints aboard, sailing straight out to the audience like an open invitation – forget sin, forget penance, forget disbelief – to grace.

Sarah East Johnson has a mighty agenda. It was recently on display at P.S. 122 in Timberline, an “all-girl extravaganza,” as her company, Lava, terms its circus-on-the-dance-circuit vaudevilles. Johnson is out to use acrobatics (tumbling, the high wire, the trapeze, et al.) as a metaphor: first, for the difficulties and dangers confronting the human animal at every turn; second, for the possibility of overcoming incapacity and fear by grappling with challenges. She wants to demonstrate how bonding with one’s fellow man (well, woman – since gals are thought to be better at cooperative undertakings) increases our strength, combating our inherent loneliness and amplifying our courage. What’s more, she wants to connect us to nature, in its fierce dual aspect of beauty and threat. (For this, she depends on Nancy Brooks Brody’s breathtaking northern-wilderness videotapes, used as a backdrop.) She also wants to give us a good time and maybe even make a little art. She has, in sum, a bunch of undoubtedly worthy ambitions. What she does not have is a viable show.

A show, the term Mark Morris pointedly uses to refer to his company’s performances, should offer the extraordinary (or the ordinary craftily framed as extraordinary), no? Lava operates in the theater of the body, yet only one adult in the eight-member troupe boasts a figure that distinguishes her from the Lumpenproletariat. (By reason of their age, the 9-year-old twin sisters are exempt from such judgment.) More significant, none of the performers, the children included, has achieved a level of skill above low-intermediate in the art of acrobatics. So what we witness – as they attempt to walk the wire, leap horizontally through hoops, arrange themselves into human pyramids – is tension, bumbling, and flat-out failure, no matter how much the audience (estrogen-rich, as a colleague of mine termed it) screams its encouragement. Granted, technical haplessness isn’t the critical issue, for homemade theater can be enchanting. Lava’s work, however, is without grace, without charm, without mystery or suggestive power, and – most important in the circumstances – without the innocence that redeems, and indeed illuminates, untutored art.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Spring 2001 season, at BAM.
Choreographed by Sarah East Johnson, at P.S. 122.

20/20 Vision