Depths of Memory

Recollecting Family Histories

You may think you know a composition for cello quite well. Then you hear Yo-Yo Ma play it. Its colorations become richer, more nuanced. Images hitherto unnoticed glisten in its depths. Ma has said that working with Mark Morris and his dancers was "like seeing the music but in a completely different kind of notation." To dance while he plays must be like hearing choreography. Certainly the glory of Ma making music on the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage for the sole New York appearance of Morris's company this season inspired audience and dancers alike.

Morris calls his new suite of duets The Argument. You'll notice that the title isn't plural. The subject transcends the dickering transactions of three couples; Morris's argument, I think, is about the importance of love itself. Does everybody need an intense relationship? Ma and pianist Ethan Iverson bring out the wit of the first piece in Robert Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston, but also its brusqueness, the occasional bitten-off end to a phrase. The marking-time, folk-dance step that Morris uses as an opening motif for superb performers Marjorie Folkman and Mikhail Baryshnikov becomes an edgy what-next dialogue. She's by turns doubtful, angry, disgusted; he's furious, brooding. But they're caught in the dance. She puts out a hand; he comes to her. She flies offstage; he rushes after her. Neither can stop this partnership, any more than Folkman can stop the music for longer than Schumann allows by raising a hand to Ma.

There's something ambiguously plaintive about Morris and Tina Fehlandt, as if the movements they sink into so deeply are gradually melting their relationship. She lays her head along his arm, and you think, "What's wrong with this picture?" In their extravagant fighting, Ruth Davidson and Shawn Gannon don't hurt each other, but give the air a good thrashing. The opening music is recapped at the end, and so are motifs from all the duets. Morris, with his roots in folk dance, calls everyone together not just to make an ensemble ending, but perhaps to affirm that love within a community is as full of tensions as a marriage.

Hearing Ma play Bach's Third Suite for Unaccompanied Cello is like climbing stairs to heaven. But the music also falls, and so do the dancers— down the stairs at the back, Isaac Mizrahi's gorgeous, deep-colored velvet caftans tumbling around them. In the beginning, Morris's marvelous dancers treat the music as almost palpable; they paddle in it in brief solos. Here, too, the choreographer plunders folk-dance patterns; a wig-wagging in-place phrase that fits almost claustrophobically into the music's rhythms becomes the source of a dance for two facing lines. Morris plays all the music's games. Arranged in a pyramid on the stairs, the performers do a rigorous and witty hand drill. Following Bach's longer shapes, lines of people run in, coil around the leader, uncoil, and snake off. As if in homage to Bach's church career, they move into consoling tableaux or thrust exultant fists to heaven. That's how I want to respond at the end. What music! What dancing!

San Francisco choreographer Margaret Jenkins's Breathe Normally, inspired by conversations on aging, family, memory, and dying between Jenkins and actress Olympia Dukakis, delves into the way remembered events blur and slide together. On the Joyce stage, in a filmed hourglass, the sand runs both up and down.

The seven performers (Paul Benney, Doug Hara, Gerald Hiken, Ellie Klopp, Sue Roginski, Rebecca Rossen, and Jenkins) themselves have slippery identities. Sometimes they all wear pants, white shirts, and ties. Sometimes we glimpse them through wooden bars on Tom Bonauro's freestanding wall or behind its scrim. Taped conversations between Jenkins and Dukakis guide us only obliquely. The lore of an immigrant family (Dukakis's) contains a monstrous catastrophe. Did 10 people pile into the old Packard to drive to the movies, or eight? Who sat in front? Who was driving? (Hara keeps ordering the performers into different configurations on chairs.) The one immutable fact: only two survived.

Neither Jenkins nor Rinde Eckert, who wrote text for the piece, follows a narrative line or reveals character. Events relate to other events only suggestively. The car crash is described; a storm of shoes is thrown onto the stage. The excellent veteran actor Hiken taunts Klopp (the director of the work) by tossing coins. She crawls after him, cramming them into her mouth. His laughter brings on a heart attack and he crumples, coins spurting from his hands. No text illumines this gripping scene. It's up to us, too, to decode the motif of passing objects and furniture, of packing and unpacking suitcases. We can imagine the toils of emigrating, the grandfather who was a traveling salesman, or the stuff we load into the warehouses of recollection.

There isn't much "dancing" in this fascinating piece, and what there is stands for bursts of energy or straining toward a destination. People run about, intermittently arranging themselves into snapshot poses. The rhythms themselves convey the fluidity of memory and the way it snags on certain past events. Breathe Normally frustrates you if you want stories; it's really about the mechanics of memory itself and the tender glow or drastic glare we train on our past.

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