I saw them at BAM on 4/23. I needed to buy a subscription to BAM’S winter/spring season, in order to be sure to get tickets to *The Iceman Cometh*, which I knew would be a hot ticket. I love MMDG and have seen them many times but have kinda fallen out of the habit. I added them to my season as a filler, I needed a fifth show and that seemed like a good choice. Little did I know it would be one of the most thrilling nights ever!
Morris is known for his bone-deep musicality. He understands music like few choreographers do, and he knows how to express the music as opposed to just illustrating it. Do you see the distinction? And this might seem like a fine point, but it’s really not: he only ever uses live music. This is rare, and makes such a big difference.
The first piece was done to a Carl Maria von Weber piece for clarinet and piano. Weber sounds sort of early Beethoven, warm, charming music. Morris’s dance was playful, sweet, at times goofy. It was the perfect opener for a program, it warmed up the audience and the dancers, got us all in the mood. It made me chuckle, which in some ways is better than a laugh. The general feeling was girls versus the boys - - three girls and eight boys, the girls wearing orange dresses, and boys wearing white T-shirts and navy capri pants. Bare feet. Bare feet all night long, actually. Morris used a few recurring motifs over the course of the first movement, and they all made an appearance in sequence at the end, like a bullet list. Or a medley!
The second piece was done to a suite for violin and piano by Henry Cowell. I didn’t like it very much, and it was the music that was a dud. It sounded like highbrow TV movie music. I love TV movie music, but it must be lowbrow for me to love it! There were only two dancers in this piece, a man and a woman. He was wearing a white shirt and gray trousers, she was wearing a rosy lipstick-colored long dress in some kind of fabulous glossy synthetic knit. They were having some kind of power struggle. It was never boring, but neither was it thrilling. There was one delightful moment: the man was on the floor, facing down - - the woman came over and laid down on top of him, facing up. Her legs were spread apart, on the floor beside his legs, outside his legs. And he bent one leg, with the toe pointing straight up, then the other - - between her legs. Another chuckle-worthy moment.
The centerpiece of the program was the second half, a piece Morris calls *Spring, Spring, Spring*. It’s his take on Stravinsky’s *The Rite of Spring*. This is one of the most important pieces in the history of music, and it’s a masterpiece, just as thrilling as the day it was written, in 1913. But let’s face it, it’s been played to death! Morris solved that problem by hiring a jazz trio, The Bad Plus, to do their own special arrangement of it, for piano, bass, and drums. They were incredible, I need to buy their recording of this piece, I need to own it.
The piece opens with a bassoon solo, playing very high in its register, a plaintive melody. Other winds come in, and it opens like a flower, a flower with a strange and haunting perfume. (Jeez, who writes this crap!) The Bad Plus version opens with the piano playing that one note, the opening note - - then the bass comes in on that same note, and it just hangs in the air. No lights in the theater, no dancers on the stage, just the one note hanging in the air. Then the piano finished off the phrase, and the piece went on. It was magical. Mostly it sounded like *The Rite of Spring*, but here and there they went off doing something else, or something so dimly related that it sounded new. At one point the music had a brash, intense beat that made me think of the dance at the gym from *West Side Story*. MAMBO! I guess it’s sort of a short journey from Stravinsky to Bernstein.
The lights came up and the dancers came onstage. The men were wearing bright colored solid pants, no shirts, and laurel wreaths in their hair. The women were wearing gauzy Grecian knee-length dresses and floral wreaths in their hair. Combine those costumes with the Stravinsky, some circle dancing and ritualized movement, and you get this: Morris Dancers Go Native! And I’m not talking about Mark Morris, I’m talking about those wacko English folk dancers. All the rage in certain communities.
The dancers eventually broke into four groups: four men, five women (often dancing in a square, with the fifth woman in the middle), and a group of six, consisting of three male/female couples. The finale to the first movement had the piano playing a repeating figure in the right hand and a different repeating figure with an unrelated off kilter rhythm in the left hand - - and then the bass and drums coming in playing a foursquare rock beat. Onstage the four men entered from the left, danced across, disappeared in the wings - - followed by the five women, from the opposite direction, followed by the three couples. And on and on, each entrance by the dancers coming a little sooner each time, the dancing itself rising to a crescendo and the trio playing that unbearably complex yet concrete music. The whole thing was…not just dazzling, it was baffling!
I was on the D train going home, making notes for my review, and trying to articulate what it is that Morris does, what makes him so special. Part of it is his deep feeling for music, yes - - but he has a unique blend of sophistication and naïveté. I love that he hasn’t lost his naïveté, after all these many years of being a working choreographer. I hope he never loses it.