December 2005

Mark Morris--a Postmodern Traditionalist

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Once an enfant terrible of the contemporary dance world, choreographer Mark Morris has gained the respect of critics as well as the affection and admiration of a broad public. One reason is clear: his dance-making, far from engaging in the avant-garde's wholesale contempt of the past, is deeply rooted in culture and custom--seamlessly integrating elements drawn from traditions as diverse as Eastern European folk dance, classical ballet, and modern dance. Another sure reason is his musicality. Unlike postmodernist choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Morris (who speaks of being "smitten by music" at an early age) understands that music--true music--is the essential foundation of dance. The emotional trajectory of a typical work by him is propelled by the score he has chosen, and he insists on using live musicians of the highest caliber in performance.

A case in point is Morris's indisputable masterwork L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), which was once again performed at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival in New York in August. One of his many dance pieces inspired by baroque music, it is set to a song cycle by Handel, based in turn on poems by Milton--scored for chamber orchestra (on this occasion, the first-class Orchestra of St. Luke's), vocal soloists, and chorus. As one might guess from the title (which refers to Milton's "cheerful man" and "pensive man," plus the "temperate man" added by Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens), the song cycle spans the full spectrum of human emotion, from playful humor to dirgelike melancholy. Out of Handel's infinitely rich musical material and the poetically inspired libretto, Morris has woven a dance tapestry that seems to convey the whole universe of human experience--ranging from the downright silly to the sublime, and ending in a circle dance suggesting the motion of the heavenly spheres themselves. Perhaps most remarkable, while the dancers and the movement style are clearly of our time (recalling the "natural" dance movements of Paul Taylor's splendid Esplanade, created thirteen years before Morris's work), they are entirely compatible with the seventeenth-century spirit of Milton and the glorious eighteenth-century musical setting by Handel. What's more, this long and complex work goes straight to the hearts of a twenty-first century audience. No small feat all that! And sure testimony to the universality of great art.

Morris's philosophy of dance, implicit in his work, was candidly illuminated by him a year ago at Barnard College, in a conversation with Tina Fehlandt, a founding member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. Sweeping into the Barnard auditorium where the interview was to take place (as one of the college's public On Dance programs), Morris flamboyantly tossed a bright red shawl over his shoulder and turned to the audience, impishly exclaiming "Isn't it fabulous?" He then settled down to deliver some very sober thoughts on his approach to the art of dance.

Most provocative, given his own early reputation as a rebel, was what he had to say about the avant-garde. Asked for his view of Cunningham's work, for example, he cryptically answered that he "respects and appreciates the fact that he's done it," then paused and pointedly added: "That doesn't necessarily mean I like it." It has always baffled me that many of the same critics who express keen admiration for Morris's work also praise Cunningham. The two represent wholly antithetical views of dance. That Morris does not like Cunningham's work therefore does not surprise me.

Explaining that he has little patience with work that seems to appeal mainly to fellow specialists, Morris said he rarely attends "downtown" (i.e., avant-garde) dance programs, even those by friends. "I'm not of the Last Wave Generation that says if it lasts all night and you can't understand it, it's great," he declared with typical candor. Nor is he interested in watching "really crappy, politically motivated work," he said. "If it works as propaganda, it doesn't work as art." Most telling was the advice he then offered to his audience, made up largely of students and faculty associated with the college's dance program. They would do well, he said emphatically, to read (or re-read) Arlene Croce's controversial 1994 New Yorker article on Bill T. Jones's Still/Here and to "think about it carefully." (Croce had refused to see and review Still/Here, arguing that its use of videotapes of workshops with terminally ill patients was beyond the pale of art and therefore outside her purview as a dance critic.) For those who might not yet have gotten his point about such work, Morris added: "Just 'cause you mean it, doesn't mean it's good."

By no means oblivious of his own past, Morris has simply matured past the days when he was "a young firebrand" focused on being "outwardly queer," as he put it. None of that is of primary importance for him anymore. He is more interested in dealing with "the 'great themes': love, fellowship, loneliness, death" (among others)--as critic Joan Acocella, the author of a fine biography of him, has noted.

Morris's musical taste is discriminating, eschewing contemporary popular music since the 1960s (as well as what he referred to as "masturbatory improvisational jazz") but embracing opera, the music of such exotic lands as India, and classical chamber music. He is especially drawn to baroque work because it is not only eminently danceable (being closely based on dance forms) but also includes "enormously beautiful" vocal music. It is "dancing, singing music--all connected"--and a "high achievement of Western civilization." (That last phrase alone sets Morris a world apart from the postmodernist fold.)

Another work set by Morris to a baroque score is Marble Halls (based on J. S. Bach's Concerto for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo in C Minor). This 1985 work--which was staged by the Barnard dance department this spring and performed at Lincoln Center the previous summer--is very different in spirit from L'Allegro, however, and has been rather coolly received by critics and audience members alike. While the choreography adheres closely the structure of the music, it fails to connect emotionally, unlike Morris's best-loved works. Reviewing it a year ago, New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning aptly observed that "the dancers seemed less to be moving to [the] music than inhabiting the same space." In its emotional detachment, Marble Halls seemed more like Cunningham than Morris to me--the sort of dance the avant-gardist might create if he choreographed with music, instead of apart from it. Asked about this effect during the Q&A that followed his Barnard interview, Morris appeared to confirm my impression. "There are those who say Bach is all math, others who say he is all emotion; both are wrong," he began by observing. In Marble Halls, he explained, he was focusing more on the "mathy" side, following what he characterized as his own "ancient style"--which he likened to the minimalist vein of Lucinda Childs in dance and Sol Lewitt in the visual arts. No surprise, then, that the piece struck me (as it has others I know) as arid and mechanical compared to his far more expressive--and more satisfying--later work.

To fully appreciate what separates Morris from the postmodernist artworld, it helps to understand the role of tradition in his work. When asked at Barnard about the influence that such traditional forms as the jota (a Spanish folk dance) have had on him, Morris quipped: "Influence is not the same thing as getting a tattoo." He did not elaborate, yet the remark was telling. Its gist was illuminated by what he said about his approach to gesture. In creating expressive gestures for his dancers, he explained, he does not "imitate anything specific in any tradition." Rather, he seeks something that feels "inevitable and accurate," appropriate to the given moment. The diverse traditions that he draws upon (he tells, for example, of making a grand tour of obscure little European countries at the age of seventeen or eighteen, attending "every wedding or circumcision" on his way) have been thoroughly assimilated by him, contributing to his sense of what is expressively fitting. What results is not a pastiche of disparate styles but an integrated whole, the product of a fertile imagination that has been nourished on a rich diet of the world's culture. That is why, though postmodern in period, he is not postmodernist in spirit. Artists in every discipline could learn from him.

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