It took a few moments to settle in to Mark Morris’ “Grand Duo,” the final work on the program his Mark Morris Dance Group performed in Tulsa last night. Coming after three congenial pieces — “Canonic 3/4 Suites,” “Going Away Party,” and “Silhouettes” — this four-movement journey into tribal ecstasy felt dark, unsafe, and otherworldly.
But there were shadows of this world in each of the other dances. In Morris’ work, as in the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare, tragedy waits in even the sunniest moments. As Joan Acocella, Morris’ biographer, once wrote of his work, “Call it the Greek principle: no beauty without a hint of terror.” He is a realist. Such is life.
Morris’ great contribution to the art of dance is this very realism. He works with dancers who look like human beings (not like sylphs), and he uses human movement (not the codified ideals of the 19th century). He knows that dance emerges from music and has since ancient man first stomped in rhythm, and thus he is unwaveringly committed to hearing what music says. His is the art of universal truths — not intellectual ones, but real ones. Truths about spirals and impulses. Truths about vibration, line, weight, and the funniness of the human species. About how we are — really how we are. “For him,” New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay has written, “structure is metaphysics.”
Structure is the whole show in “Canonic 3/4 Suites,” which is, as Morris explained to me, “a suite of etudes set to wonderful, unusual, ballet-class type music by various composers, Czerny, Moszkowski, all in triple meter and all choreographed canonically (think Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Only better.)”
Etudes; triple meter; canon. From those rules, and from the four limbs and a head of the human body, the piece takes off and grows more and more complex and delightful, like a flower emerging from a seed which, though completely unassuming, contains the precise program for its own fantastic flourishing.
The piece starts with a single man onstage. He moves his head, then his arm, then his leg. Then Morris strings those parts together into a gorgeous assemble, which lands the man back centerstage again, where he continues going head, arm, leg, at various speeds, and always ending with that lovely jump. Already we see the complexity emerging from the simplicity; already we can hear, thanks to the movement’s expressing it, the slow 6-count that surrounds the 3.
The surprises continue throughout the piece (“how did that come out of that?”). There’s one section, though, in the midst of the cavorting, that feels different, worrisome, uncertain. Laurel Lynch steps cautiously out of the corner into a very long balance in a tentative arabesque. She tumbles out of it into a huge curving jump, out of which she stumbles into empty space. Another dancer comes into the scene, watching as if ready to catch Lynch should the risk get too much for her. Lynch advances to the other corners; she adds long, reaching plies in arabesque. By the end of the section, there are several wary, vigilant dancers surrounding her; their presence brings some comfort to the scene, but still she is utterly unsupported except by the barest force of gravity or instinct. We wonder what it is about herself that she is testing with that determined, slow balance. She always catches herself — like a musical canon does. And if she didn’t, it might not be pretty for a second, but the others would. (In the last moments, as for the first time she falls back instead of forward, as if they have agreed among themselves to end it, they do catch her.) “There’s nothing between a dancer and her audience,” Morris told me. “I like that presence and that risk.”
“Going Away Party” and “Silhouettes” share a foundation in American vernacular music — by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the first case, and by Richard Cumming in the second. Morris told me he “worships” Bob Wills, whose Western swing is “an achievement and a beautiful gift to American culture.” (The company included the dance in its Tulsa program to honor Wills’ tenure at the Cain’s Ballroom, a legendary downtown music venue that fostered Wills early in his career.)
Morris is not above using the literal gesture (far from it, in fact), and here it was in full force: one arm reaching forward on the lyric “yearning….”; the women using the men’s backs as tables when the song talks about tables; and so on. There’s also a lot of funny sex business in the piece. And flailing full-body ricochets, like how the actors look when they get shot in “Gunsmoke.” And square dancing.
It would all be a little flat without the just-right dancers, who never show too much and never too little, and especially without the moments — sometimes so brief you think you didn’t see them, except that they are the ones that linger longest in the mind — where the heartache that pulses below the guitar’s thwack bubbles up through the singer’s voice and into what’s happening in the dance. You notice that there’s always one dancer left out, not maliciously, but just because he or she is one extra for the way country dancing works. It’s the image of the lone cowpoke, the high lonesome bluegrass sound that informed Wills’ music, the one who is always looking past the crowd, further out into the prairie. You notice the gentle joining and parting in a long line towards the end of the piece, the real yearning, which turns up the volume just slightly on the many variations of joining and parting that have passed before. I loved Aaron Loux’s shuffling Jimmy Stewart lankiness here.
“Silhouettes” is so odd at first that the audience doesn’t know what to do with itself. A man stands center-stage in a 1920s-style button-down pajama top, with piping. He dances a bit. Then another man appears — in pajama bottoms that match the other man’s top. We start to laugh, but it is spooky as well as funny, like two halves of the same man are dancing, like a slightly macabre cartoon, like the split circle people from Aristophanes. The two literally shadow each other for the entire course of the piece. Shadows, playmates, stalkers, twins. The music’s tone is light, and so is the dancing’s, but again, that twang of heartache … they are so close to being one. At the very end, both men lay on the floor on their sides in a steep diagonal, both facing the audience. The upstage man turns onto his other side, now facing back. For me it’s a shattering moment. Close as they are to completing each other, it’s the final seal of separateness.
“Grand Duo” has been called Morris’ “Rite of Spring.” His description of it to me was, “It is big and it is gorgeous.” That it is. It’s the shapes that stay with me: the lines like rows of columns or an encroaching phalanx or cells in a leaf, the circles like dark fruit, the Medusa’s-hair tangles of two groups acting and reacting against each other from opposite sides of the stage.
And the shapes the bodies make, which come one after another after another: two fingers scooping light out of a bright shaft shot across the dark air; a sickled foot creeping onto a knee (later it slaps the knee); a strangely passive standing on one leg, the other hanging bent in front of the body. A woman in cobra pose, letting her proud head collapse between her shoulders, chin forward, dog-like. The two fingers again very close together, pointing in the same direction, elbows bent like a divining rod. A huge arc back with one arm as the opposite leg’s extended, falling into a diagonal that resolves that tension but creates a new one in its place.
There was no moment in this piece when my mind was not worrying something, grasping it, shaking it, trying to get it to give every last bit of its meat. Struggling to feel an emotional connection to these bodies that are so utterly caught up in this primal body battle. But the dance’s real rewards come when you let yourself simply … let go. “Grand Duo” picks you up and tosses you inside Lou Harrison’s music, played with emphatic passion and precision by pianist Colin Fowler and violinist Joanna Frankel. Within the dance, you are within the music. It is going, you cannot come of your own power, you must be ready and available to be taken. It is going, inexorably. Let those who have dipped their fingers from below into the light paint a path to guide your way. There’s not a lot of light. But it’s enough to bring you into the circle, to join the living mystery in the dark.