The Mark Morris Dance Group made its annual visit to Zellerbach Hall this week, under the aegis of Cal Performances, so I made my usual visit to see them, on Friday and Saturday. All three pieces were west coast premieres, though not all were new; the first piece, Behemoth, premiered in 1990. It was an exceptionally well-chosen program; the pieces all played off each other in interesting ways.
All three pieces used the entire company, and though there are solos in Behemoth, and individual actions, my main impression is of a group, and groups of groups, as in the folk dances Morris studied. The dancers are dressed simply, in tight shorts or the occasional pair of tights, and shirts, mostly sleeveless; the costumes are all in solid shades of green, mustard, or black; sometimes the shorts and tops match, more often they don’t. On the left breast of each shirt is a peculiar small rectangular badge, with a tiny mirrored circle in each of its four corners. The occasional reflection off the tiny mirrors forms the only “set” on the bare black stage; the pale shifting lights look like re-forming constellations, or tiny squiggling creatures seen under a microscope, or the pale autoluminescence of some blind underseas creature.
The opening movement is quite slow, and the gestures are repeated throughout the different segments; the arrayed dancers slowly lift one leg, they slowly lift an arm, they squat like sumo wrestlers, they form a circle with their arms and bend to the left, so they look like a q. Many movements throughout are slow and controlled, though occasionally the dancers (or parts of them) shiver, or they tremble like marionettes.
This is the piece unique in Morris's output in that it is performed entirely in silence, though as we all know, concert halls are never “silent.” I’ve been reading Kyle Gann’s interesting new book, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’ 33”, so I’ve been thinking about these things in particular, though anyone is aware of these issues at some level who goes to a concert hall hoping to hear, say, Beethoven and instead hears Beethoven through a scrim of talking, cell phones, coughing, and cellophane crinkling. Silence is very powerful and disturbing to people, like celibacy, possibly because both seem like an almost perverse denial of natural tendencies and like a sort of spiritual challenge or assertion of spiritual superiority. There are some noises the dancers make, as in the moments when they all clap, and some accidental sounds they make, as when their bare feet squeak as they slide across the floor.
The audience on Friday was surprisingly respectful of the silence, except for the occasional cough; last night by contrast several cellphones went off, despite the usual announcement, and there were several loud volleys of coughing, which I can’t help thinking of as the eternal internal adolescent rebelling against the enforced silence (you never hear coughs like this in the auditorium before or after the performance); though of course the rule is mostly there as a courtesy to other people, something adolescents rarely think of, especially adult adolescents. We even had the outburst of giggles that follows a greater than usual barrage of coughs.
But it’s so difficult for people to surrender themselves even briefly and just sit there and listen (4 minutes and 33 seconds is not a long amount of time, yet how tense and uncomfortable Cage’s piece is for many people). Even in the ten-minute “pause” between Behemoth and the second piece, many around me were pulling out their electronic toys – seriously, if you’re so important, or so restless, that you can’t last an hour without checking your e-mail/Facebook/eBay auctions/whatever, or you can’t sit ten minutes after a dance without distracting yourself with an electronic game, you should probably just go to a bar.
As NA mentioned to me last night, the dance creates its own music – not so much in any sounds that result intentionally or accidentally, but in the sense of rhythm, and also in movement through and in time. As its name implies, Behemoth is a vast piece (around 40 minutes long), with something primitive and mysterious about it; some short segments seem like fragments of dances, as if the movements were continuing after the darkness fell. It’s an interesting piece for Morris to make, because although it has many of his usual characteristics (the folk-dance influence, for example), it seems like a deliberate rebellion against his reputation as the ultra-musical choreographer, and his reputation as a wit and jokester. The effect of the piece was ceremonial and fairly somber.
I think some members of the audience, particularly last night, wanted Morris the flashy comedian and didn’t know what to make of the piece. Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of them, and went wandering during the intermission so I wouldn’t have to listen to their silly conversations. But I’ve been watching Morris’s group for decades now, and I’ll just watch wherever he wants to go.
Speaking of Morris’s wit, and of Kyle Gann, the second piece, Looky, had plenty of both. This is a piece from 2007, set to Gann’s Studies for Disklavier, which is a set of player-piano pieces that sound almost like simple scales and studies until the notes start to go “wrong” and it sounds jaunty and captivating. I think the costumes for this one are a combination of costumes from other pieces – I’m sure I recognized several from the Hard Nut (Julie Worden was wearing her older sister mini dress, for example). Some of them look like ordinary things to wear (Michelle Yard in her simple black dress) and some were definitely not (John Heginbotham in pants and jacket both decorated in small squares, each square made up of pale gray and dark gray triangles – by the way, I still think of those two as St Teresa and St Ignatius, thanks to Morris’s production of 4 Saints in 3 Acts). Samuel Black’s elegant muscularity was draped in the flowing oversized silky white pants and tunic of a stripped-down Pierrot, which may be why on Friday the piece reminded me of the melancholy festivities of Watteau. Last night it looked more antic to me. As with the party scene in The Hard Nut, there’s a lot going on in each section of the dance, and I think you’d have a different impression every time you saw it.
After the post-Behemoth pause, the house goes completely dark, to let the audience know it’s time to pay attention again, and so, wittily, when Looky begins we aren't looking at anything – we can only hear the piano at the back of the stage. A spotlight gradually lights it up, and we see that it’s a player piano – which strikes many in the audience as a novelty worth pointing out to each other, even though it’s really all you can see at that point. Then we see Dallas McMurray sitting in a Hard Nut tunic on the back of the stage. What follows are a series of short scenes, mostly about looking, and mostly about looking at various forms of art. There’s a gallery or museum scene, a dance performance, a brawl in a Western bar as imagined by a boy.
The scene of the dance performance is particularly witty; several of the dancers sit in chairs, chair and dancer leaning to the right, looking variously intrigued and mostly bored, while the other dancers strike picturesque poses; two of the most bored-looking viewers are in front, with the dancers behind them; when the dancers strike their final tableau, the two suddenly wheel around, as if they’re suspicious that they've just missed something. There’s a lot going on in Looky, and a lot of it is about how people interact or not with art; in the final scene, a solitary viewer wanders between two rows of dancers unmoving like statues, all striking baroque poses, until suddenly they surround her, violent and threatening, and the piece abruptly ends, with an image of the viewer overwhelmed to the point of danger by Art.
After the intermission came the most recent of the pieces, Socrates, which premiered last February. It’s set to Satie’s Socrate. I recently read Nadine Hubbs’s interesting book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound, which makes Socrate seem like one of those secret wellsprings of alternate modernism (that is, the Franco-American school of such as Thomson, Copland, and Rorem, as opposed to the followers of Schoenberg). (By the way, I recommend the book, but reading academic prose is like reading Chaucer; it makes perfect sense when you’re immersed in it, but if you pick a page at random it can seem like a foreign language.) I had heard recordings of Socrate, but this was my first time live; its effect reminded me of the effect of Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915; both tread into deep emotional territory but in a gentle way, as if you’re being cradled by a melancholy wisdom. Live music is always an attraction of the Morris company, and Colin Fowler on piano and tenor Michael Kelly gave an outstanding rendition of Satie’s work; without distorting its simple, straightforward textures, they subtly varied its declamatory style to avoid possible monotony.
The dancers are semi-nude, dressed in filmy skirts or short togas with bare (or half-bare) chests for the men and loose-fitting tops for the women, in soft shades of olive, rose, sky-blue, and wheat. The back of the stage is divided into two large blocks of color, the right half black, the left sort of golden wheat. Classical (or neo-classical) art is evoked throughout; dancers frequently strike a reclining river god pose, or are arranged as if they were sculptures on a pediment (this may sound artificial and obvious, but it’s too fluid to look that way during the dance; I didn’t really register the pediment effect until the second time I saw the piece). Rows of dancers frequently cross from one side of the stage to the other, with graceful, controlled and dreamlike movements, as if you were seeing a classical frieze come to life. The famous uplifted index finger from Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates is a frequent motif, particularly in the third segment, the death of Socrates.
The first segment is the Portrait of Socrates, in which Alcibiades describes what his friend is like. The dancers are in pairs, each clasping one end of a rope, knotted in the middle, which joins them. They could just drop the ropes and go off on their own, but no one does. The image made me think of the fable told in the Symposium, in which love is caused by each person searching for his or her original other half. It’s a portrait of a companionable society, as is the second section, On the Banks of the Ilissus, a pastoral scene in which Phaedrus and Socrates walk along the river shore, discussing the pleasures of nature, and, briefly, the nature of myth. There is no one dancer who plays “Socrates” or any of the other speakers; the identities shift among them, individually and as a group.
The longest section is the final one, showing the calm resolution of Socrates in the face of his court-ordered death, and the sorrow of his friends. He refers gently to the mourning rituals they will engage in for him (Phaedo will cut his long hair, a cock will be sacrificed to Aesculapius). They try to hide their tears. He commends the goodness of his jailer, who has often come to talk to him during his imprisonment – another image of companionable communication as the highest human good. Sometimes the dancers mirror the actions described by the words: they lift the dying Socrates's feet, or touch his chest where his heart would be, each playing "Socrates" in their varying turns; or they rub their elbows together when the chirping of crickets is mentioned. Other times the movement is more abstract and patterned. When the piece ends, all the dancers are lying on the floor, then after a brief pause slowly and slightly lift their legs and arms – an image of the final death shudder, or of rebirth.
The total effect of this dance is so moving – a peaceful wisdom in the face of the arbitrary and ignorant. There’s something flowing and elegant about the movement, and something about the deep reservoir of feeling hidden behind, that makes watching this dance a profoundly restorative experience.