While Mark Morris breaks up and repeatedly surprises your expectations, he also surprises his own.
Once you acknowledge that Mark Morris is a genius and probably the best living choreographer in the U.S. if not the world (cf. Joan Acocella, Arlene Croce, the MacArthur Foundation, Mark Morris, etc.), then you have to decide what to do with him besides praise him. You can delineate his departures from tradition and laud his radical hip originality, or show how he fits with a long tradition of modern dance and assign him his rightful place in that canon. You can call him a formalist or an expressionist. You can look at his work as profoundly redemptive and joyous or as very sober and authentically tragic. You can work up close readings of his dances and associate individual gestures with emotional meanings or with musical phrases. You can say that it’s all terribly ironic or that it’s all painfully sincere, that it’s sophisticated in its sensibility or that it’s outrageously vulgar, that it’s very pop or that it reflects Morris’s brilliant and profound self-education. You can dwell on Behemoth as an Oedipal conquest of Cunningham, or on The Hard Nut as a nose thumbed lovingly at ballet in general and Balanchine in particular, or on Gloria as a private joke shared with Isadora Duncan — or not. “In him,” Arlene Croce memorably wrote, “a gift of provenance and a gift of expression are indistinguishable.” You can, with great lyrical flourish, say that the essential quality of Morris’s genius is to encompass all the conflicting possibilities.
In fact, it is perhaps the essential quality of Mark Morris’s genius to make his audience feel the conflict among these possibilities, because the oppositions posed here (sad vs. happy, classical vs. romantic, radical vs. canonical) are really rather ordinary ones, contained by the work of most interesting artists. Morris reengages you with them by consistently winning a kind of bluffing game: just when you think he’s going to dichotomize, he doesn’t; just when you think he’s making a simple, clear statement, he splits it into complexity. This tendency is epitomized in his early New Love Song Waltzes, which ends with the company forming a spiral, each collapsing into the next one, so that you are left with a helix of prone dancers — and then one sits up. It’s there in O Rangasayee, in how the pachyderm weight that goes onto Morris’s ankles is contravened by the explosive verticality he achieves well into the piece when his arms swing up into circles. It’s there in The Hard Nut, when his apparently ridiculous “Waltz of the Snowflakes” turns out to be a complex and highly ordered and spectacular and even elegant piece of ballet. (When I saw it at a run-through, without the Carvel costumes, it was breathtaking.) It’s there in Dido and Aeneas, in the eloquently flat-footed swimmers’ leap in “Come away fellow sailors,” and in L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, in the calculated inconsistency of that piece’s ever-multiplying scrim shadows.
Mark Morris has been interviewed too many times. Talking to Mark Morris is like this: He is a great big personality. His personality is bigger than any other personalities that may be in the room, no matter who’s there. Every single thing he says is quotable — it’s a kind of brilliance — and the interesting, difficult, impossible part is to get any real meaning from him. Many in the dance world are good with bodies and bad with words, but Morris could be a poet if he only had time, and it is the exquisite craft of his narrative of himself that is so scary and so fantastic. It has a certain imperial aspect (Dido was fine self-casting); though he still has the brawling, wide persona for which he was originally so famous, it now serves as a sort of basso continuo under a more constructed melody of playful, quirky, careful self-awareness.
Writing about Mark Morris you are supposed to mention some trademark things about him. He drinks a lot, and smokes and is gay and is way overweight and has long black ringlets and he has no long-term lover but is fanatically devoted to his work and is very theatrical and hard to get close to. Joan Acocella goes over this in minute detail in her book Mark Morris, a pellucid and passionate reading of the choreographer’s work woven into slightly starry biographical panegyric. Mark Morris grew up in a family in which he was very profoundly loved and that made him happy. He started dancing scarcely out of the cradle, and was choreographing by early adolescence, when he also joined the folk ensemble Koleda, which helped to form his communal ideals. He made good work through the early eighties, but had his first real triumph with a triple bill at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, which included Gloria, O Rangasayee, and Championship Wrestling; also in 1984, he rather casually formed the Mark Morris Dance Group, and by virtue of his unrelenting inspiration the company received ever-greater acclaim, and was a community of equals held together by a group love that transcended individual passion (this model occurs in much of his work). In 1988, they went to Belgium as the Monnaie Dance Group/Mark Morris, where they shocked the European theater-narrative dance community with Morris’s strictly dancerly work; in three unhappy years there, Morris made his greatest masterpieces in dizzyingly quick succession (L’Allegro, Dido, Behemoth, The Hard Nut, etc.). Since Belgium, he has based his company in New York, and his reputation steadily increases.
Morris has a following as rabid as Wagner’s or Madonna’s or Krishna’s. “We attend all of his performances,” one woman told me at Jacob’s Pillow. “We’ve seen this program six times here this week, and we’re looking forward to seeing all twelve shows in Edinburgh next month.” During a recent performance of One Charming Night (a duet for Morris and Teri Weksler), I watched company dancer Guillermo Resto, William Wagner, and Kraig Patterson in the wings, where they sat transfixed by a piece they had probably seen a few hundred times; Resto more than once raised his arm as though he were dancing along with Morris. The fluency of the work comes out of this communal vitality; though Mark Morris is much more equal than the others in his group — his blazing egotism is part of his charm — he bestows on them the valuable gift of their own humanity. “They’re dancing well when they have infinite choices at any moment, and can decide exactly spontaneously what direction to go with something. And they don’t change the choreography. It’s in phrasing and tone, in ambience, in attack and approach: that’s the art part.”
His dancers are tall and short people of many races and many variations on gender stereotype, and with perhaps big bottoms and breasts, and some of them are heading into middle age. “I don’t like the we-can-do-this-and-you-can’t-because-we’re-a-superior-species, which I get from a lot of people’s work,” Morris explains. Morris’s dancers are also not unintelligent, and they are encouraged to use their minds. “There’s this ridiculous notion in ballet that you’re supposed to be protected like veal. It’s not for me. It’s a relief for people to see dancers who are adults, who aren’t lying, who aren’t bullshitting. Even if you don’t like them, there’s no hidden agenda here. Artifice is fabulous — that’s why I love the theater, and my work has lots of artifice, but it’s honest. If it’s this small a company and you look somebody in the face onstage, it can’t be unrelated to how you look at that person offstage.”
That honesty is also in the intense musicality of Morris’s choreography. Mark Morris is a rigorous musician who educates his dancers into musical literacy. “I’m working with music, I’m not working with sound. I rehearse with pianos so that I can work at whatever tempo I want and repeat things and go back and break things down and have the rehearsal pianist play just the oboe voice in this thing, because I want everyone to hear it, so then when you hear it with the band you understand how the dance makes sense with the music. That shows. Here’s a big reason why people like my work: you don’t know why it makes sense but it makes sense.” In fact much of Morris’s choreography relies on visual representation either of musical structure or of the texts to sung music (about half of his work is to sung music — and extraordinarily high proportion). Though the work is never formulaic at the Lucinda Childs level, it is usually rational, and that rationality is hugely satisfying. In the baroque work this is often quite literal (those two dancers are the flutes; she’s the bird in the libretto), but it can also be powerfully abstract. In Rondo, a recent work which look as though Morris had added yeast to O Rangasayee, the movements are so precisely timed and shaped that he might be playing essential notes on a giant keyboard with his feet, adjusting their tone with his hips and hands.
The patterns of Morris’s speech echo his choreography. In the first place, whenever he says anything in conversation that is surprising or radical or strange, he throws an “of course,” sometimes italicized, into the middle of it, emphasizing extraordinariness by glossing it with the ordinary. “Classical ballet is kind-hearted, of course, because it’s communicative; and you can’t hate the person with whom you’re communicating. If you do, it’s a bad piece, of course.” He also speaks a lot in colons, which give his speech an elaborate infrastructure that does not, however, prevent its being highly colloquial. “So here’s what I do: the thing that I do is: I make up a dance… so they do it right and they’re revered as fabulous artists: and here’s why: they are.”
The dances are like this, too. You can almost hear him saying “of course” at the end of New Love Song Waltzes, or in the persistent gesture of tragedy in Dido — the two hands, one above the other, diving down from chest to groin. The work set to baroque music is entirely in colons. The 1984 Gloria has in it a repeated gesture, arms hung down and slumped from side to side like the trunks of elephants, that opens up five different ways. The “Hasty Nymph” part of L’Allegro starts with two dancers on either side of the stage, like quotation marks, and their movements predicate the expanded gestures that will follow. Every motion is framed; you are prepared for it; and then, when it’s supposed to come, it comes with a certain triumphant bearing. (As you rewind the videos, you can see the movements contracting backward into their simple first gestures, like nets being pulled out of the sea.) It’s stately and elaborate without being affected or highbrow.
Despite this sensibleness, the real tension in his work is not sad vs. happy, classical vs. romantic, or radical vs. canonical; nor is it spectacularly showy vs. transparently precarious. It is a tension between control and lack of control, and Morris, wise enough to realize that this struggle is crucial, does not try to hide it. The best thing about his genius is how he doesn’t quite have a handle on it. The precise configuration of his punctuation is set and the theatrical naturalness he brings to the difficult gesture is established, but his helpless carpet-weaver’s impulse to damage whatever he makes keeps it shy of perfection. That’s the art part. Mark Morris is a flirt: whenever you feel that you’ve got what he’s doing, he whisks around and shows you how you don’t. But he’s also a romantic: for whenever you realize that he’s fully in control of his meanings, you realize that he isn’t. While he breaks up and repeatedly surprises your expectations, he also surprises his own. It is the ambivalent striving for a mastery at which he can never arrive that gives his work its poignance. It is as though Morris arranges his own thoughts in a perfect coil and then, when there seems to be peace, one of them, hearing something faint and remote, sits up. This restlessness of his own imagination is unbearable to his masterful geometry, and that is the struggle that is so haunting, so painful, so lonely, and so very beautiful in his finest work.