Mark Morris has created a wild variety of dances in many different situations, from silly to profound, but whatever their other qualities, almost all of them seem to be about community. It makes sense, for a choreographer who started his dancing life with a community-based folk dance group, but whatever the reason, Morris has created some of his most compelling material for close-knit groups. Three of the four works his company recently brought to town, (they performed at The Moore Theater November 20-22, 2015), rely on that group cohesion to roll through Morris’ exhilarating choreography.
The program opened with Cargo, which the company performed here before, in 2006. All superficial resemblance to the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy aside, Morris’ riff on cargo cults is a crafty version of a prop dance–an exploration of the movement possibilities found in a prop, in this case a long bamboo pole. The cast takes turns with it, using it as a walking stick, a weapon, and everything in between. The dance stops short of being an anthropological demonstration, but does hover on the edge between serious character development and simple hi-jinks. The structure of the work runs alongside the score (Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World”), but it doesn’t tell a creation story. Instead, it feels a bit like something from Pilobolus’ repertory, where kinetic curiosity is the motivator for whatever happens next.
Little Wooden Tree is another familiar work, but when it made its premiere in Seattle in 2012 it had Mikhail Baryshnikov in the cast. As thrilling as that was, it made watching the dance a bigger challenge–it was very difficult to see the work as a whole. With these performances, sans celebrity, the ensemble comes back into focus. The cast looks like my second grade school picture, full of corduroy pants and full-skirted dresses, with saddle shoes all round. Set to English novelty songs by Ivor Cutler, full of salacious puns and silliness, the dance is full of simple tricks and old-fashioned jokes. Morris’ performers look each other in the face with each encounter, but it’s more brisk than sentimental–Cutler’s sly performing style is reflected in their dancing.
Whelm, one of two new-to-us works on the program, was as mysterious as Little Wooden Tree was whimsical. Performed in the near dark, the four dancers slithered and lurked in the shadows more often than they stepped out into the open. Beginning with a long duet, where the two participants take turns dragging each other upstage, the dancers seem to have mixed feelings about their relationship to each other–sometimes cooperative, sometimes distrustful, sometimes almost malevolent. The score, selections from Debussy arranged for piano, are familiar ones, especially “La cathédrale engloutie,” but sound unusual in this context where so much is uncertain.
The program finished in a communitarian fashion with The, which is set to a piano version of J.S. Bach’s first “Brandenburg Concerto.” It’s almost like a pocket version of Morris’ program-length L’Allegro, il Pensero ed il Moderato, with nymphs and shepherds material popping up everywhere. There are the complex floor plans, like a square dance or running set multiplied by itself; the simple locomotor phrases, full of runs and skips, that give us the false impression that we could be doing this too; and most importantly, the genuine regard for each other that we see in the way the dancers meet and part through the patterns of the choreography. Bach was a master pattern-maker, and Morris has staged the kinetic equivalent on a company of equals.