A few years ago at a performance, a choreographer pointed out a dancer to me and said: “He’s American. British dancers just can’t do that.” By “that”, she didn’t mean skill, or style, or technique. “That” was a certain open-heartedness, a directness and legibility of action, a largesse of gesture – eager, honest-to-goodness, Gene Kelly-ish qualities in modern dance form, as sincere when wistful as when joyful.
The return of the Mark Morris Dance Group to London reminded me of that moment. A British choreographer, British dancers, just would not cut this, I thought; it needs Americans. I caught Programme B at Thanksgiving, which seemed only right. The opening piece – Excursions, to piano music by Samuel Barber – is pure Americana, a kind of square dance of interweaving lines, partner-swapping, call-and-response patterns and centre-stage solos, all set in and around a square of light. The first section sees the six dancers in an unabashedly hokey hoe-down of lasso swings, goofball gimmicks and finger-snapping strides, ending with a spread-eagle stretch as wide as prairie horizons. Those bright skies are clouded by the darker, more complex music of the subsequent numbers, eliciting more emotionally nuanced choreography: the dog-tiredness of farmhands – or slaves – seen in the dancers’ heaves and falls to blues-inflected tunes; the relentless onward wanderings of pioneers echoed in the piano’s walking bassline.
But what to make of A Wooden Tree, an American piece set to marvellously deadpan songs about the “good old English” by Jewish-Scottish poet Ivor Cutler>? Dressed in dowdy clothes, like snotty-nosed kids in a wartime playground, the dancers act out the weird humour and pathos of Cutler’s little ditties, fantasy folksongs backed by his wooden piano plinkings or the mournful wheeze of his squeezebox. No Americana here. And yet it is all very “Mark Morris”, a disarming combination of subtle whimsy and broad slapstick, melancholy and matter-of-factness, profundity and platitudes. And skipping, always skipping.
As ever with Mark Morris, the bones of the choreography are all in the music, while the flesh is found in the dance.
As ever with Morris, the bones of the choreography are all in the music, while the flesh is found in the dance. Watch a Morris work, and you can almost see the skeleton of the musical score: the exposition, elaboration and return of thematic phrases, the dynamic markings, the modulations and textures. This gives the choreography a quality of transparency, through the directness and legibility of its means. And it is this, exactly, that makes me ambivalent (I don’t mean undecided, I mean conflicted; I mean love–hate) – especially when, as here, the music has words. Because then the dance sometimes not only mirrors the music, it mimes it. That can go either way. When Cutler sings of two people in their own worlds having a cup of tea together, the choreography shows two people sitting across an imaginary table, looking away from each other. Although it’s very literal, on this occasion it seems to capture, simply and without fuss, the heartbreaking pathos and bathos of the song. Yet elsewhere, the mimickry of a song about “how to court a girl” looks not just simple but simplistic, leaning first on words and then on music, without adding much to them. Musical song structures – verse/refrain, for example, or additive rounds – sometimes impart a deeply satisfying formality to these madcap numbers, as with the title song, which comically pulls one dancer after another into its iterated verses. Yet sometimes they impart a exasperating predictability, as in a witty, poignant love song when the same Morse code rhythms are repeated in the same circular pattern at every refrain. How can the same means produce something sublime, artful, insightful and something so artless and Pan’s People-ish at the same time? Beats me.
I succumb much more readily to Morris when there are no words, because any literalisms are necessarily less to-the-letter. Jenn and Spencer, danced by Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez, is – unusually for Morris – focused on a single relationship, tracking the couple’s symmetries, pursuits and rebuttals through a visualisation of the score – Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano – that is both coherent and surprising (the very combination that marks Morris at his best). It begins with a solemn spiral, Weddel and Spencer forming the vortex which keeps sucking them back towards each other; whence they track the duelling entanglements of violin and piano, whether stepping into the interstices of each other’s moving bodies like the piano planting chords across the violin’s moving melody, or stepping out solemnly to the piano’s doom-laden ostinato, letting the violin coil around them like unravelling knots. It is a darkly powerful piece, seemingly simple yet dense with undertones.
Festival Dance, to a piano trio by Hummel, closes the programme. Each section starts with a couple in the same position, upstage right, running through the same phrases: embrace, separate, tilt, turn, chase. The couple are initially the focus, but this is not their story: the group takes over soon enough, and the couple becomes embedded into running chains and staggered sequences, as lively as the accompanying arpeggios. The opening couple fade further: different pairings form the principal couple each time they appear. As with Socrates on the previous programme, Morris sets up leading roles but lots of people get to play them – a disarmingly democratic device. Festival Dance is a folksy, upbeat finale, as sunny as – well, as a Gene Kelly smile.
Morris’s London visit left me, once again, ambivalent. You don’t look to him for movement invention (simple steps and gestures abound in his work); but you do look to him for compositional craft and thought (a rare choreographic quality). His work can be simultaneously deep and shallow. It can be highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow all at once. Sometimes that feels liberating, and sometimes it just leaves my brow all furrowed. What Morris pretty much always does, though, is illuminate his music, and for that I am always grateful.