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The Death of Socrates concluded a program that began with Behemoth, a fascinating 1990 work by Morris. Some people have found it “difficult” or hard to watch (perhaps because it’s 40 minutes long and performed in a silence broken only by the occasional footfall and handclap). Not me. I loved it from the start and I love it now. I could watch the beginning for a long time. The dancers wearing leotards and tights (design by Christine Van Loon) in various combinations of black, mustard, and emerald green stand spaced out unevenly across the stage. The backdrop and the wings have been lifted, so the space looks big and bare. Gradually, not all at the same time, each lifts one leg to the front, holds it there a second, puts it down. What ensues is a series of blocky moves that will later reappear as motifs. While the dancers lift that leg to the side, put it down, make a quarter turn, hunch forward, cock their heads to the side, straighten, arch their backs, raise their arms, Chybowski makes fuzzy little stars of light fly sporadically not only around the back walk but around the front of the Opera House balcony.

If we use the word behemoth at all these days, we’re rarely referring to the unconquerable giant beast that God conjured up in words to knock the fear of Himself into Job, but to any huge, powerful, lumbering thing that’s likely to run us over. Morris’s dance has that weight, but it also has marvelous group patterns, both simple in appearance and compositionally sophisticated, creating their own kind of musical rhythms. Behemoth becomes more vigorous and intricate as it progresses, gathering strength as it rolls along. Morris ingeniously divides and subdivides and recombines the cast. Diagonal parades meet and intersect. Circles form and are reborn as straight lines. When I saw Behemoth 10 years ago, I was reminded of modern dance of the early 1930s, when Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and others were interested in the stripped-down clarity and force of contemporary architecture and design.

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Mark Morris Dance Company
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
February 23 through 27

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Small incidents, however, interpret power and weight in other telling ways. At one point, while almost everyone is jumping and prancing in place, Amber Star Merkens (formerly Amber Darragh) leaps across, drops into a wide-legged stance position, and starts making big, stopped moves. The others gradually exit. When they return, Noah Vinson repeats Merkens’s entry but bursts into different steps. Everyone leaves again. Then they come back. Craig Biesecker hails Vinson, and everyone stares. They go. Vinson lies down. Blackout. When the lights go up, he’s still supine but inching laboriously toward the back of the stage.  

The blackouts become increasingly closer together as the piece lurches along. Various people enter from one side of the stage and immediately leave. Throughout, I keep imagining them all toiling to make something like a patchwork quilt, but not being sure how (or whether) they want the pristine pieces to fit together. Movements seen earlier take on new significance. A line of dancers circle David Leventhal, but when he slowly lifts his foot in that opening gesture and puts it decisively down, they fall as if shot.

The combination of clarity and mystery in the shifting patterns is thrilling. Because no music binds them easily together, the superb performers are wonderfully alert to one another, as if they were engaged in an important secret operation that demands their attention to every angle of their bodies, every formation that they tread into the floor. Lose that precision, and you’re dead. Morris has built something human into what could be a bizarre machine, and when Okamura is alone, right near the end, and she lifts that one leg front again, you want to hand her a medal for bravery.

The two major pieces were separated by a between-courses sort of amuse-bouche: Looky. Perhaps stunned by Behemoth, I didn’t view it quite so clear-sightedly, or with as much mild pleasure and amusement, as I did at its Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2007. With the company costumed in black-and-white items from a number of earlier Morris works, dancing at a minimum, and interaction and reaction primary, the piece has the air of a series of skits or an extended game of charades. In the more intimate atmosphere of the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theater, it was easier to enter the spirit of the piece.

At Jacob’s Pillow, however, Looky had to be danced to a recording; at BAM, a gleaming disclavier sits in a corner of the stage, its keys jumping up and down under the fingers of an invisible pianist, as it emits five of Kyle Gann’s terrific Mechanical Piano Studies. I should say more than one invisible, incredibly limber-fingered pianist. For instance, describing “Texarkana,” one of the pieces Morris uses, Gann notes on his website that it is “built almost throughout on a fast basic rhythm of 29 in the virtual ‘right hand’ against 13 in the ‘left.’” This comes after he tells us that (for a variety of very good reasons), he “applied [Conlon] Nancarrow’s techniques to an early-jazz, still ragtimish style derived from James Patterson Johnson” that somehow split the difference between Scott Joplin and Earl Hines.” Can you hear it now?

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