Still Falling for the Bad Boy

Mark Morris’s All Fours and Violet Cavern at BAM (May 2004)

This didn’t start out as a love story.

By the time I first saw Mark Morris Dance Group, the company had been around nearly two decades and produced some of the most beloved dance and hyperbolic press around. By 1998, the year I moved to New York and started watching his work live, many of the targets Morris had so famously taken the piss out of seemed like smaller bullies, after all. Ballet, romantic love, gender: almost single-handedly, it seemed, he had through the 1980s rewritten these codes for dance, staging ungainly arabesques in faux tutus, asking women to lift men, imagining same-sex partnering in dance, giving us men in skirts. By the late 1990s, if the politics weren’t a little dated, the gags he so often played them for were. Then there was the weird anachronism of his thinking: often, in Morris’s hands, dance repeats the musical structure, gesture mimes the lyrics, and the linearity of thought is almost shocking.

I left wondering what all the hoopla was about.

On a recent summer’s night at BAM, however, Morris appeared as challenging a choreographer as one might hope to encounter—a testament in part to the fan I’ve become, and to the lingering ways in which this artist continues to pull our chains. All Fours (2003), set to Bartok’s "String Quartet No. 4" and mirroring its 5-part structure, offers a dark vision of collectivity, at once unified by hope and marred by doubt. Groupings form, disperse; there are encounters, then separations, marked by familiar gestures—for instance, a hand pressed to mouth then extended, as in good-bye. One motif finds dancers writhing in their earthly state; we see a group of eight bringing their hands together above them, like a prayer, then throwing their arms downward and behind, backs arched, hands claw-like.

But is love or god the target of this anguish? Either way, Morris never did have much use for authority, and herein lies much of the scallywag joy of watching this artist. For Morris is no garden-variety bad boy; he’s been kicking against the forces that keep us down for over 25 years, in part through the content of his dance and in part through the very movement qualities he envisions. Folks like to talk about the "human" quality of his work, and by that I think they mean both the diversity of bodies involved and the apparent simplicity of his dance vocabulary. For instance, his eye for the uncodified gesture is acute; in All Fours, there are skips and hops, shudders and wobbles, falls and rolls. Here, the dance is so pared down as to appear minimalist—no small claim for a choreographer whose sense of history and affect produced such densely layered and monumental work as l’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988).

Never mind that his company looks less and less diverse as it becomes more and more of an institution; and never mind that by invoking the higher power—in this case, the notoriously spectacular and technical movement of dancers as gods—we risk entrenching it further. Morris as public persona—resplendent at curtain call in his purple dress shirt and bolero tie, eternally quick with the mouth and equally prolific with his art—has done wonders for a form that continues to struggle with an inherent conservatism. The effect of All Fours was to highlight what may be his greatest strength as a choreographer—not his famed musicality, but his mastery of the crowd formation.

Morris moves the body collective like no other, imagining patterns, lines, and shapes that form and reform with almost military precision. In the final movement, dancers, dressed in elegant utilitarian street clothes in shades of black or blue, form two groups of four and, like some modern-day tarantella, advance, retreat, flail their arms up and down in alternate directions—the image of vigor and exhaustion, rendered sculpturally by the dramatic and spare lighting of Nicole Pearce.

Violet Cavern, the final work of the evening and a world premiere, is a tougher sell all around. Featuring a newly commissioned, wild-ride score by The Bad Plus, a jazz trio lead by Morris’s former musical director Ethan Iverson and running about 50 minutes in length, the work squirms along beneath Stephen Hendee’s set, in which a cluster of panels, marked with gaffer’s tape and hung from above, remake the stage as luminous underworld. Beneath this web-like installation, dancers move with familiar elasticity and weight, but here the mood is sluggish. Morris’s love of gravity is on view, especially, for instance, in a lengthy section of mostly floor bound movement. Throughout this alternate world, dance confronts stasis: we see bodies lying prone; women retreating in the face of advancing men who slap away their outstretched hands; pairs of dancers sliding forward on their backs, as another glides along between them—Pluto walking his subjects into Hades.

Fleeting images, fleeting ideas, each in the end smothered by a rowdy score that illustrates the peril of dancing too near the sound. A press release notes that this is Morris’s 600th consecutive performance to live music, a reminder of how centrally music figures in Morris’s imagination. If, in the 1960s, Merce Cunningham made a definitive break with music and dance, Morris has attempted to mend the rupture. And depending on your taste, he has largely succeeded. But whereas Cunningham sought to give dance autonomy and, in doing so, underscored how movement assumes its own rhythmic qualities, Morris sees a melding of the arts where no hierarchy need occur. At best, he succeeds in creating what Isadora Duncan imagined as an "orchestra of dancers"; at worst, he reduces the dancers to mere instruments, punctuating the scores in ways that seem overstated or plainly unnecessary.

Violet Cavern, alas, falls on the side of unnecessary. Often, the dancers seem as out of control as the music, leaping headlong into motion in ways that are almost disconcerting. Is it that we process visual information faster than sound? Can bodies ever be as quicksilver as a musical note in air? Or is this where Morris pressures the dancers, and the audience, challenging us to see and accept their effort—that very thing that classical dance has sought to conceal for so long? Maybe yes, maybe no. And while I’m no fan of music as master, it’s the way he keeps me guessing that has me going back for more.

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