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Sampling `Next Wave' in music and dance. Morris's dance: novel, not stuffy

By Marcia B. Siegel / December 1, 1986



New York

Mark Morris's dances suit today's audience perfectly. Formal but not stuffy, impersonal but not elitist, they're a jogger's idea of culture, a connoisseur's idea of novelty. Morris was all over the place this fall, with his one-company ``Dance in America'' television show, a new ballet for the Joffrey, and a week of his own in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's ``Next Wave'' series. Seen at BAM, ``Stabat Mater'' (Pergolesi), Morris's big new piece for his own company, is tightly structured, like all his work. Starting in front of a downstage drop, red and black with a huge cross on it, the dance opens onto successively larger spaces as the music expands on the crucifixion of Jesus. Each space has another backdrop with cross, the last a cutout suggesting even bigger, luminous spaces beyond.

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In the first section, all 12 dancers stand in line, facing away from the audience, bending and shrinking and shielding their faces in rhythmic poses. Later, several groups of four dancers state different motifs: One group simply tilts from one foot to the other, staying in a tight formation but changing their places within it. In another group, three men lift and rotate a woman who poses stiffly with her arms stretched out, a living crucifix. In the next larger space, groups of eight do variations on the quartet movements. The last section brings all 12 dancers into the biggest space, only their movement, instead of expanding, gets tighter - until the final amen, when the dancers drop into poses of supplication or hope just as the curtain falls.

Morris's movement material in ``Stabat Mater'' is sparse and intelligently put together. He underscores the music with frequent built-in poses, so you can see it rhythmically, but his movement seldom flows into larger phrase structures. ``Stabat Mater'' looked quite flat and even static to me, its effects coming from punctuations like sudden falls to the ground, and from mass gestural flourishes and formations.

Morris's dancers have a deliberate quality of ``humanness'' that probably contributes a lot to his popularity. Not only are their steps very earthbound - the opposite of levitating ballet dancers - but they work for a natural look in the torso and arms, not inflating or lifting the chest or trying to ``place'' the arms except for specific gestural shapes.

Morris's other new dance at BAM was a trio, ``Pi`eces en Concert'' (Couperin), a sendup of baroque mannerisms, the limp wrist, prettily extended foot, the sidelong flirtations.

Apart from his comedies, I have trouble remembering Mark Morris's dances. It's not that the movement isn't interesting, but that, for me, it seldom connects with any feelings.

I can't yet perceive his language as one that leads to affect, nor does it evoke superhuman ideals. Compositionally impressive, stylistically facile, and disarmingly offhand, he doesn't ask anything of us. To me, his stance is an ambiguous compromise rather than a welcome relaxation of strictures.