Monday, September 21, 2009

viva la revolution

(I've left in a few phrases the editors removed--the ones that plant Morris in dance history but mean little to non-dance folks. quel dommage!)

Choreographer Mark Morris has never worn his politics on his sleeve. He hasn’t had to. Decades ago he established himself as a late baby-boomer choreographer who loves music to distraction and built not merely a dance company but a village whose residents stay with him for years and years. His life itself was political.

Now, in a program Thursday night at Cal Performance’s Zellerbach Hall, (continuing through the weekend), politics comes into sharp if quiet focus, signaling that Morris has evolved into a mature, often disquieted artist who sees the inextricable link between tragedy, pleasure, chaos, beauty and the political state.

While Morris has always cared about society, and has a deeply humanist point of view, it is only in the last half dozen years that he has become increasingly eloquent about the enduring values of a Republic. In this current program he meets us with both images of sweet, balanced society and of stirring visions of unhappiness, war and death. Iraq is never far from consciousness, nor are all the follies of the war makers and their war machines, not to mention internal extremists and the rabble.

In the night’s most stirring piece, “Empire Gardens,” with deliciously bright parade costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman, Morris does what he does best—draws from early modern dance to interpret contemporary conditions, the way a modern musician might take a phrase of an old master and reconfigure it.

Set to the dissonant, multi-layered Trio for piano, violin and cello by Charles Ives, played brilliantly in the pit by Michi Wiancko, Wolfram Koessel and Colin Fowler, Morris dresses the corps in whimsical military stripes, moves them in angular semaphoric patterns, and evokes early German modern dance, military bandstands and commedia dell’arte all at the same time.

Like Ives who layers melodies and dissonant tonalities, including snippets of “Rock of Ages,” Morris is fearless in knitting together disparate elements—an Edvard Much scream and a Martha Graham frontier tableau; marching action and the mechanical style of Oskar Schlemmer. In the sheer jumble of conflicting impulses both aurally and visually, he presents a portrait of a childish, silly, but destructive brood unable to see their own folly.

“V,” choreographed to Schumann’s Quintet in E Flat Major for piano and string, which closed the evening, has some similarly arresting visuals, especially when the dancers scrabble along the ground like athletes/beasts/soldiers trying to escape the battlefield while elegantly attired in deep blue shorts and sexy hopi coats

Avian formations abound, and flocking V patterns appear and reappear, as do beautiful couplings between the dancers dressed in white pants and tops and those clad in blue. As Schumann veers from the elegiac to the funereal and back, Morris follows; late into the piece, Morris seems to run on automatic, his ideas thinning before Schumann’s music runs out.

“Visitation” set to Beethoven’s soul-searching Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major began the evening. Here Morris offers up another, quieter dance of loss and attachment populated by ghosts and memories in which partners are sucked away from one another as by a soft gravitational pull. From loss and dream of loss, the figures repeatedly assert a heroic response, one leg angled over the other, hands together on a hip as Beethoven lets the French song of revolution, the "Marseillaise," leak into the flow.

The company danced like a democratic tribe, moving with unaffected athleticism and joy, embodying through their attack, their commitment and their joy the humanism Morris so deeply prizes.

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