Score Tactics

Music man: Morris's V at BAM.Photo: Robbie Jack

Touted as Mark Morris’s latest “big” masterpiece, V, featured in the Mark Morris Dance Group’s recent week at BAM, arrived in New York after preview showings on the West Coast and a London premiere in October. It’s not a dance I loved at first sight. After a second viewing, I still hadn’t succumbed, though I admire it enormously.

Set to Schumann’s Quintet in E flat for piano and strings, which does remarkable things with rigorously restricted material, V achieves a visual – and, predominantly, intellectual – equivalent of the score. Morris adheres to a daringly limited palette of movement and gesture, exploring it in endlessly inventive permutations. Primary among his themes are the V shape of the title, explored by the dance’s two teams of seven and in myriad brief trios; a sudden-death lift; and an awkward crawl in a stuttering rhythm that repeatedly reduces the human figures to an unnerving primitive state before releasing them to the simple dignity of Homo erectus.

No living choreographer is more musical than Morris (not even Paul Taylor); none (not even Twyla Tharp) has a more sophisticated command of structure. In the domains of these gifts, V triumphs. What it lacks, to my mind, is the Shakespearean richness of mood and emotion, the variegated landscape populated with people and demigods of every sort, to say nothing of animal, bird, and plant life – in other words, the near-reckless profusion – that characterized Morris’s 1988 L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, sealing a success that the choreographer’s fans so desperately want him to top. Like L’Allegro, V is dominated by a spirit of joy, and the communal bonding it glorifies wins out over near-pathological darkness and isolation. But despite this – despite, even, the ebullient passage in which Morris at once spoofs and celebrates the workings of a huge-cast neoclassical ballet that churns away like a magnificent unstoppable machine fueled by “major” music – V remains too dry and brainy. Mine is the minority opinion, but I’m not alone in it.

For me, the best news in the repertoire shown at BAM was the small but perfect Foursome, a model of the unexpected eloquence that can be attained by choreography aspiring to the condition of prose instead of poetry, speaking rather than singing. Set to Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes and Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Seven Hungarian Dances, it was performed by four casually clad men who might have been chosen for their drastically different anatomies and body language. Tall, big-boned, and full-fleshed, his fleetness and buoyancy uncompromised, Morris was one of them.

The ground for the choreography is a plain walk – so simple you could cross a room with it, attracting no particular attention. It’s used to parse the space so that the traveling figures and the patterns they create seem to be caught in a bird’s-eye view. Gestures punctuate this walk; often they halt it entirely to make their point. Though they have no meaning you can put a name to exactly, they look as if they did, and they have a terrific theatrical impact. Watching, you’re stunned again and again by the ordinary.

The proceedings eventually expand into more conventionally dancey material, making witty references to a crazed spectrum of styles (including the bounciness and batterie of Bournonville’s Jockey Dance) and offering multiple views of the ways in which guys can be guys together. Despite the elaborations, the idea of the simple and unaffected prevails. The great beauty of Foursome lies in its proposition of dancing as doing – even as not-doing, just being.

The Joffrey Ballet, which once played the feisty kid sister to the grand duo of our local dance scene, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, has been missing and missed for the past eight years.

In its heyday, the Joffrey offered a kaleidoscopic artistic vision. Pop ballets provided by Gerald Arpino made strange though stimulating bedfellows with the repertoire Robert Joffrey cultivated: resurrections and imports of landmark works (the company had the largest collection in America of works by Massine, Jooss, and Ashton) and, daringly, crossover pieces from the likes of Laura Dean and Twyla Tharp. Purists chronically complained about the Joffrey dancers’ slapdash classical technique, but most folks rejoiced in the performers’ intense individuality and their youthful exuberance.

Since its emergence in the mid-sixties as a full-fledged institution, however, the troupe has been plagued with more than its share of the financial and administrative woes endemic to dance enterprises. Joffrey’s death in 1988 only exacerbated matters, and his company nearly succumbed. Its last New York appearance, in 1994, included a show shamelessly calculated to sell tickets to the aesthetically challenged. In 1995 it was reconstituted, under the direction of Arpino, as the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

New York dance fans in pursuit of their bliss are more likely to travel to Paris, London, or St. Petersburg than to the Midwest, but when the Joffrey got within down-for-the-day commuting distance, I went to see it at Kennedy Center. The program was calculated to please: Kettentanz, the fertile and facile Arpino’s most agreeable concoction; Antony Tudor’s poignant Lilac Garden; and Agnes de Mille’s effervescent Rodeo. I came home disappointed, feeling, chauvinistic as it may seem, that the Joffrey needs New York – that ostensible city of finalists – to keep it up to snuff as much as New York needs an alternative to its reigning purveyors of ballet.

The performances were adequate, certainly, but lackluster. Overall, the dancers displayed reasonable proficiency and an evident desire to please, but none of the extravagant energy and imagination that, astutely channeled, makes for memorable theater. This suggests a limited talent pool, a lack of sophisticated and impassioned direction, and, I would venture, insufficient exposure to and – yes – competition with art practiced at the highest possible pitch. Lilac Garden was delivered in discrete bits and pieces, without musical or dramatic acumen. Kettentanz was sweet but tame, its various moods indistinct. Rodeo came off best. Does the Joffrey now feel most surefooted in the context of homespun Americana?

Mark Morris Dance Group
Joffrey Ballet
At the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.

Score Tactics