Best of 2010: Trying to understand the acclaim for Mark Morris

Why is it that so many others are touched by this choreographer's work, when I continue to feel unmoved?

Crosscut archive image.

Lauren Grant and the Mark Morris company in "Gloria."

Why is it that so many others are touched by this choreographer's work, when I continue to feel unmoved?

(Editor's note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut's writers. This story was originally published May 25.)

During the intermission at last Friday’s concert of the Mark Morris Dance Group at The Paramount, I saw my friend Margaret, a former dancer, and the first thing she said to me was, “Wouldn’t you love to be performing these dances?” I hesitated in response, because over the years I’ve never been able to warm up to the Morris company’s larger group works like those on display this night, preferring instead his earlier, smaller pieces emphasizing his wicked wit, and as someone put it, his “impishness.”

Curious, I asked Margaret what she liked about Morris’ choreography. “He makes me see and hear the music in a new way. He does a phrase [of movement] I really like and I want him to do it over again and again, and then he does!” Wanting to know more, I called another dancer friend on the East Coast and she had similar things to say: how the choreography offered her a deeper read on the music, adding that she appreciated the way the company’s dancers interpret the work in a clean and unaffected manner.

I asked these friends because I was trying to understand why so many dug the dances, including Crosscut's own Roger Downey, but not I. This concert was an opportunity to see the choreographer and his company again after several years’ absence on my part, and to gauge my responses anew, knowing that over time my perspectives on dance can change. That the three dances of the evening were set to live music performed by the Seattle Symphony and The Tudor Choir made it even more of an inducement to attend. Unfortunately, none were recent works, the newest, "Jesu, meine Freude," created in 1993, and "Gloria," the earliest, in 1981, only a year after Morris first organized his company.

I am never really sure what exactly it is that so often leaves me unmoved by this artist’s work. At times I find it too mannered, with elegant posing and pretty movements passing for original statement. Or perhaps it’s the vaunted musicality that too often seems to careen between literal interpretation and interpretive messiness.

"Gloria," set to Vivaldi’s "Gloria in D," was the most intriguing of the evening’s offerings. It best combined for me the range of Morris’ movement interests: rooted in Western classicism, yet with elements from contemporary and ethnic dance forms that mark the artist’s progression through his own dance education.

Morris was a young choreographer and dancer still in his mid-twenties when he created "Gloria." Bursting with ideas, there is much packed into the dance, and though it doesn’t all work, it has the stamp of a unique and intelligent voice. Vivaldi, the merry priest, has long been a favorite of young choreographers for his bouncy and danceable music, but this deeply spiritual paean to the glory of God is not. The first thing we see is two dancers, one erect, the other flat to the floor inching his way along by hands and toes, both like pilgrims on the way to Calvary.

The remainder of the dance is rich with small ensembles and contrapuntal phrases that emphasize the music’s flow or run against it, alternating in an almost academic ABA format. While the entirety doesn’t quite hold together, it does hold one’s attention, and the dance is a harbinger of the future for a choreographer rife with possibilities.

Before the intermission was another Baroque ode to God, this JS Bach’s "Jesu, meine Freude." To some it might not have been the best programming to include this and "Gloria" on the same bill as they cover similar territory, both musically and choreographically. Along with the first piece on the bill, "A Lake," a slight dance with music by Haydn, there was sameness in a program that remained at a certain energy level throughout. None of the three musical works offer an easy blueprint for choreographic interpretation, and while I admire Morris for taking them on, there was a certain lassitude that had set in by the end of the night.

"Jesu, mein Freude," made a decade after "Gloria," finds Morris a more proficient dancemaker, but perhaps too facile and without some of his earlier dance’s eager edginess. There are some pleasing idiosyncratic moments: an opening with two men with waving multiple arms; a short sequence of dancers slapping their bodies, as if holy penitents; and a lovely swirl of a dancer’s wrist and hand that completes a movement, a stylish homage to the music’s period perhaps, or a bit of fun thrown in by the choreographer. Allusions to religion, most Christian but some I thought not, fill the dance, the most coherent and complete of the three on view.

The music and song for all the works were excellently performed by the Seattle Symphony and Tudor Choir aside from a few initial errant bleats by the horn player in "A Lake." Morris is to be given great credit for his insistence on collaboration with live music. It offers power, immediacy and unpredictability for the audience, and to the dance and those performing it. As evidence of his musical chops, the choreographer himself conducted the music for "Gloria."

The program listed 19 dancers in the company, though no more than 10 or so ever appeared on stage at one time. I agreed with my friend from the East Coast that they perform Morris’ work cleanly and coherently as a group, giving them a distinctive look, but for me there is a missing affect that denies the dances a richer coloration, especially over the course of an evening like this one.

Gertrude Stein was said to have written after seeking and not finding her childhood home in Oakland that, “there was no there there.” I continue to seek for myself the there in the work of Mark Morris, especially when so many others seem to be there already. Perhaps at this point I should just let it go and leave this troubled one-way relationship as one of the mysteries of life. But I know when the Morris troupe next comes to town, hopefully with some newly minted dances, I’ll likely be there again, trying to see if I can find the there there.


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