"It’s like a truffle," I enthused to The Beautiful Companion at intermission of the Mark Morris Dance Group performance in Zellerbach Hall, "You bite into the truffle and you get the flavor and texture of the rich chocolate exterior, then the burst of the different, contrasting flavor and texture of the filling. The two sets of flavors and texture play off of one another, adding complexity and pleasure to each other."
But then I realized the limitation of that metaphor as applied to the genius of Mark Morris. Only two textures, only two flavors. For Morris, we’d have to expand the image to a major banquet of delights. We’ll leave that literary exercise to the food critics.
The current evening of music and dance offers the music of masters, two of Brahm’s Liebesliederwalzer opuses, choreographed in 1982 and 1989, and Handel’s Dixit Dominus, the premiere engagement of this dance. Morris’ choreography seems to grow organically out of his musical choices and is always impeccably tuned to both the broad sweep and the detailed phrasings and tones of the accompanying compositions. "Accompanying" is an almost dangerous word here, because both of these pieces of music are exquisite settings of text to voice with instrumental accompaniment, in themselves works of complexity and great beauty. In the Brahms, four voices, in a variety of solos and combinations, are accompanied by four hands at the piano. The Handel, too, has four voices plus a chorus and orchestra.
Add to the lush and superbly performed music, with its textual base, the equal partnership of the visual experience of the dance and Morris’ own themes expressed through the combination of both: the totality becomes of a richness at once so dense, so multilayered, as to be overwhelming. Both The Beautiful Companion and your reviewer felt that there was more there than could be absorbed at first viewing. For all that, the lightness of touch and the sheer sensuality of the sights and sounds remain accessible pleasures in and of themselves. There is pleasure as well in the vocabulary of Morris’ choreography, his trademark steps, gestures, and patterns which, for all the differences and variations among his works, are recognizable as uniquely his.
Since the Liebesliederwalzer compositions are about love and passion, the context of the Morris Group itself as a long term, ongoing community is implicit in the work and explicit in the performance. The dance varies couplings of men with women, women with women, men with men, as well as groups of three or more. It occasionally challenges gender assumptions, as when a woman lifts another woman – not something one sees in the dance, unexpected, and, in this case, as choreographed and performed, intentionally funny. (Morris’ sense of humor is rarely far from the surface and often provides leavening between the more serious sequences of his dances. He can turn the simple twist of a shoulder, or a head poking up from a group of prone bodies, into a deliciously comedic moment.)
Morris incorporates an allemande-like step from American square dancing (which, in turn, has its roots in German dances) – a pattern of changing partners, also an expression of the freedom of love and passion in the pre-AIDS community of 1982. From the open, funny, high energy level, Morris segues easily to the more lyrical, more sensual. There is a segment with three couples prone on the stage, one partner’s body atop the other’s. It all coalesces, in the literal aspects, but also in the compositional patterns of movement and bodies on the stage, as if one with the music – and all this with seeming effortlessness.
The later, 1989, piece has a less joyful, more restrained, perhaps even more formal feel to it. There is still love, there is still passion, but defenses are up; a deadly epidemic has put a community on guard, limitations on earlier exuberance. Lines in the lyrics say, "The paths are still damp from my tears" and "That’s how my heart feels…our love, our lust, and our loathing." At the end of the dance one man dances in turn with each of the other dancers who, one by one, leave the stage, even as, one by one, lovers were lost to the deadly virus during the mid and late 80’s, leaving the survivor alone.
The Handel work is severe, the text rife with images of conflict : "enemies as footstools," "The Lord…shall execute kings in the day of His wrath…shall fill the places with dead bodies.. shall execute the heads of many countries…" The choreography, too, seems more angular, full of high energy – but an aggressive, edgy energy of concentration rather than exuberance. Its more uniform level of intensity rivets the attention and almost assaults in its seriousness. It seems more abstract as well, less easily translated from dance terms to literal message. Further viewings will undoubtedly lead to further insight into intended meanings – or not. In terms of pure dance, it is vintage, mature, masterful Morris.