Music makes me make up dances,” Mark Morris recently reminded an interviewer, but the kind of music is up for grabs. It need not be great, he said, or danceable, or even interesting as long as it interests him. But to intrigue me, Morris must approach the music in a particular way – and only one of the three premieres at the intimate James and Martha Duffy theatre in the Morris building did, although the other two had their virtues.
The late Ivor Cutler – driver of the Magical Mystery Tour bus and fomenter of nursery rhymes for children bursting with existential doubts – would seem a perfect match for the truth-telling choreographer. And he is – too perfect. When the dancers mime the words to Cutler’s comically cumbersome rhymes in the dance skits that constitute A Wooden Tree, they generalise, as dance is wont to do, where the Scot is brutally specific. At his best, Morris meets the music, and the words, askew. Here he traces over them, muffling their peculiar insight.
But Mikhail Baryshnikov, as capable as Cutler of discovering depth in surfaces, was in the cast. To the unlikely love ballad “Beautiful Cosmos”, the ageing dancer circled a chair backwards – his body stiff, only his arms ballooning out with breath – like a lonely child playing planet and its orbiting moons. When Cutler sang of incommunicative lovers, “She eats a sandwich; I look at a roll”, Baryshnikov stared desolately at an imaginary roll as if he were a fortune teller reading his own palm.
I suspect Morris chose Carl Maria von Weber’s clarinet and piano concertant exactly because it is formulaic. The foursquare Crosswalk pays wicked tribute to the company’s remarkably homogenous bevy of recent male recruits, who are almost all short, stalwart and fresh-faced, with hair parted on the side like the Happy Days gang. They tossed their legs in unison like chorus girls, lay on their sides like bathing beauties, and skipped single file like docile boys at recess. Crosswalk is diverting about bland sameness.
Jenn and Spencer is in another class entirely. The American modernist Henry Cowell moves Morris. The choreographer does not explicate or duplicate Suite for Violin and Piano, with its lumbering sadness, sweet discordance and monster crush of notes; he yearns for it. This wary, rough duet begins with the dancers yards apart; when they grow entangled, a strenuous antagonism still reigns. Decked out in a floor-length evening gown like the imperious Pina Bausch women, the eponymous Jenn (Jenn Weddel) was not cartoonishly demanding but bruisingly involved. Weddel moved with emphatic capaciousness; the steps grew rough around the edges. She pushed and pulled Spencer Ramirez on to the floor and across it, and he did as much to her.
The romantic duet, a dance staple, typically represents love’s first blush – falsely. Even violent moments look too smooth. Morris has largely avoided the form. Here he begins at the relationship’s start but ends in the middle. This love will endure, happily and unhappily. Jenn and Spencer feels exhausting, real and very personal.
www.markmorrisdancegroup.org, until April 14