LETTER FROM MANHATTAN: Death Takes A Holiday

At the Rose Theater last August, where again Mark Morris was part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, I saw a dance for the first time; a dance for the second time; and a dance for the third time. Together, they painted a portrait of the artist both overarching and magisterial, if in his particular thumb-your-nose version of magisteriality. It’s a mistake to think that because he takes bows in baggy shorts—and something like a serape—and Christopher Robin sandals with colored socks that Morris is an informal artist, or even an informal personage. In fact, he is a grand personage and a formal artist, the latter ever more so as he works with dancers—and with other dance companies—far removed from his own discalced beginnings.

Renard. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

You can assume with him, I think safely, that whatever you see in his work probably is in there (that you are not off on some personal tangent) if it’s some connection to the larger world of art, or ideas, or their history. As we all know by now, he is wicked smart. And also just wicked, although his wickedness has a moral stature. He not only engages very deeply with the composers whose work he chooses. He engages deeply with the lyricists, when there are lyrics. And he engages with the culture at large. So, I assume if I know something, he knows something. Sadly not the other way around, so really there’s more chance I’ll disappoint him than he will disappoint me.

Still, let me take a crack at his latest work—which people find anomalous, because it isn’t very “dancey.” It seems simple. It seems jokey. And it is these things, it also subsumes a whole lot of dance history—something Mark Morris has always done, from the first time he walked on stage in a dhoti and danced his ravishing solo O Rangasayee. And despite its reception in print, it is not anomalous. It has an analogous work in his own repertory in terms of the subliminal narrative, if you will, of historical engagement.

The new dance is called Renard. It’s to a Stravinsky score based on a fable by La Fontaine, and reportedly also on a Russian folk tale. It’s a mash-up of historicity, not only from the sourcing but to the first use of it—intended as a piece for a salon, it ended up being staged by Bronislava Nijinska in 1922, for the Ballets Russes. And Serge Lifar took a crack at it later. I assume Morris knows all this, it’s hardly a secret. But I think visually, he’s drawn to the Russian folk tale aspect.

I really don’t know how anyone—except I seem to be the only one—could see Renard right after seeing Alexei Ratmansky’s Little Humpbacked Horse, performed here by the Mariinsky Ballet just a few blocks uptown at the Met, and not read the Morris as a wicked response to Ratmansky’s grand Russianisms—not necessarily in this ballet, but generally. I have been told, and hence understand, what makes Ratmansky something other than a 19th century artist (something about the fleetness with which he moves things along, and I guess a lack of fussiness, and some sex), but to me, he is a really retrograde taste. If he were a dish, he’d be something like baked alaska. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s bizarre that the future of American ballet, as he’s been hailed, is a Russian steeped in the traditions of the Bolshoi. (Even as the Bolshoi has nabbed American paragon David Hallberg as a principal. Maybe Russia is the future of ballet now, and New York is the past.)

So given the ubiquity of Ratmansky—whose Nutcracker was back-to-back with the Morris version called The Hard Nut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last winter—isn’t it possible Morris is making something one can read as commentary? It’s a notion perhaps overread and over-intuited (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of that) but not improbable.

It doesn’t hurt that The Little Humpbacked Horse and Renard have the same palette—that of the Constructivists. Happily, Maira Kalman’s decor is an incredibly witty reduction; neither overblown, nor over-clever. And the Stravinsky! It’s fabulous. It’s sonorous. It’s quirky as hell. Stravinsky’s accumulated artistic heritage is not merely Russian. To us he’s as American as George Balanchine, and as French, for that matter. The Morris Renard has a relationship to all of this. To my eye and to my pleasure, Morris evokes the material of the other versions in embedded evocations. This could just be me, but so what? I certainly enjoyed myself seeing them. Yes, Les Noces. Yes, also, to those other Ballets Russes productions with cartoon aspects. Yes, Parade. Yes, Petrouchka.

Renard, to get to that other notion that it is an anomaly in the Morris repertory, bears a marvelous almost inverse correspondence to his 2009 Empire Garden, set to Charles Ives’s Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano. That dance, too, has a cartoonish aspect. Broad strokes; broad, recognizable non-dancerish movement; and withal, subtle evocations. The Ives score embeds bits of American songs, without the lyrics. But you hear the lyrics, if you know the songs. And Morris illustrates them. Empire Garden is a piece with an implied libretto. Renard is a piece with an implied dance historical context.

The dance is all about slaughter—the fox wants the rooster, the rooster’s pals want to off the fox. They succeed, but he is resurrected, very chillingly. He’s kind of the Jack Nicholson of foxes—he has that nasty, Jokerish grin, and the palpable pleasure in evil. Socrates is also a kind of slaughterhouse, though a very dignified one. First of all, it’s about the death of Socrates. Second of all, the Satie score was choreographed by Merce Cunningham, whose idiosyncratic death of Socrates dance is called Second Hand. (There’s a back story to this, of course, involving the unavailability of the Satie—Cunningham was still choreographing to music back when he made it—and the substitution by John Cage with a piece with the same timing and rhythm, which he called Cheap Imitation. Hence Second Hand.) The Morris is by no means about the death of Merce Cunningham, but you feel that loss in there. Morris had already embarked on the piece when Cunningham died, and in fact, according to Cunningham, Morris had told him about taking a crack at it after a Cunningham company performance at Dia:Beacon. “Why not?” said Cunningham.

Third of all, the décor, and some of the gestural vocabulary, and some of the postures from Morris’s Socrates would strongly appear to be based on Jacques-Louis David’s 1787 painting The Death of Socrates.

Set to Johann Hummel, that sparkling dessert wine of composers, the middle piece on the Rose program, called Festival Dance, appears at first to be about anything but loss. But look deeper! It’s a young people’s dance, yes, full of courting, charm, a delicious line dance and delicious partnering. But look at the dancers. The new ones, especially. Generally, they are full bodied. (Yes, of course with exquisite exceptions. No need to point them out to me.) They have a heft. They make large shapes, yet they can mark the air with tossed off decorative flourishes—like, say, a gargouillade, that Mark Morris specialty. They are new, but they are familiar on first sight, women and men alike. They are not so much androgynous, as matching. They are not all and everything and the in-between, as the early Morris company was. They are all and someone.

They look like Mark Morris when he was young, when he was first dancing, when he was all and everything, astounding and snaggle-toothed and toothsome. Back then, as he assembled his company, they were astoundingly individual, various, in every way. I suspect he would tell me these current dancers are too, and I would know what he meant, but they aren’t. They have a uniformity of virtuosity and of capacity—they can all do anything, including ballet. And they have a uniformity of impression.

No longer on stage among them, the choreographer is represented by a company of dancers who evoke him, just as he has them all, communally, evoke Socrates! You don’t have to make this stuff up, because Morris puts it right out there in front of you. In his dance, Socrates is represented by everyone on stage, his character passed from one to the next as the narrative transpires—almost like a game of hot potato, or Where’s Waldo? By the end, they all are Socrates. Just as, by now, all his dancers are Mark Morris.

In its own way, like the other pieces on the program, Festival Dances is a history piece. On one gorgeous abattoir of a night, Renard died, and was resurrected. Youth was resurrected. And Socrates died. And will again, and again, whenever these dances are performed. C’est la vie, and then some.

Contributor

Nancy Dalva

NANCY DALVA writes from Manhattan. Her website is www.nancydalva.com.

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