Two months after the Mark Morris Dance Group made its debut in Tulsa as part of Choregus Productions’ 2011-2012 dance season, people here are still talking about it. Heatedly! This can only be a good thing; among other things, it’s a sign that audiences here are growing more informed, with new points of reference helping them discover what they like and don’t like.
To my surprise, this performance, more than any other Choregus has presented, really got under people’s skin. Morris is a grand personage of dance, and I expected his work to be unobjectionable, but that shows what I know about other people’s tastes — especially people who aren’t necessarily awash in prevailing opinion telling them what they “should” like in art. For some the evening was sheer delight. Still others felt no connection to the dances whatsoever. And some people really, really disliked them.
I recently discussed (via text message, of all things) the reasons for this difference of opinion with Rachel Bruce Johnson, artistic director of The Bell House and a frequent conversation partner and collaborator. I’m going to do something a bit odd and transcribe part of our talk, which I hope you’ll find as useful as I did. (Yes, Rachel and I really do text this way, in complete sentences and paragraphs … are we old?)
AC: Some folks I’ve talked to were disappointed in the show. They found it flat, one-dimensional, and emotionally unengaging. It definitely wasn’t as “showy” as some of the companies Choregus brings to town. But I really appreciated the (apparent) simplicity.
RBJ: Morris’ M.O. is not movement invention — it’s the shaping of the space in time (music).
AC: Exactly, and as such it’s less “expressive” than, as one critic says, “metaphysical.”
RBJ: They clearly had great technique though.
AC: When I spoke with Morris after the show, he said he was super serious about the dancers’ technique, which he said (and it shows) goes “so much deeper” than anything in ballet.
RBJ: I wondered what his company class would be like.
AC: His dancers were saying you can pick them out in a crowd because of their musicality. It’s just how they work. I think it’s a quality that’s seriously underrrated. The master class was so interesting, all about shifting quickly between heavy and light, quick and sustained, responding to all those qualities right there in the music.
RBJ: Musicality IS underrated. Jump Rhythm Jazz is like that too.
AC: I think the audience sometimes feels cheated, like the performer isn’t giving out enough emotionally. It’s just a different focus.
RBJ: Or if they can’t figure out a meaning. Abstraction bothers some people.
What really seems to bother the people who didn’t care for the show is that it was both too abstract and too concrete — too caught up in the high-level structure of the music to appeal to the emotions, and at the same time so literal in its interpretation of that music that people felt talked down to. (The pieces performed were “Canonic 3/4 Suites,” “Silhouettes,” “Going Away Party,” and “Grand Duo.”)
I’m curious to hear other reactions to Morris’ work. Is his devotion to musicality a problem for you as a viewer? Do you feel disconnected from the movement, or too directly “directed” by the music? Can people who love classical ballet, which is almost entirely inspired and guided by its score, pinpoint the difference between that and what MMDG presented?
Full disclosure: I’ve been an adoring fan of Morris for more than two decades and am inclined to give what he presents the most generous possible interpretation. I respect his groundedness in music, his commitment over many years to honoring it as dance’s foundation. I see very few choreographers today working so prolifically and intelligently within such limits.
But I’m still thinking about this, so … jump in.