In Mark Morris’s dances, people rarely pair up for life. Music, which he articulates marvelously, is a tide that casts them together and pulls them, usually unregretting, apart. During “The Hour for Thee and Me,” the first song in Morris’s Stephen Foster suite Somebody’s Coming to See Me Tonight, every few seconds a newcomer rushes in to replace one of the partners in an ongoing duet. In the title song, three men queue up at one side of the stage to catch friends who rush into these brief encounters and dash off again: friendship as waves—ebbing but always flowing back. In this sweetly dreamy 1995 work, the only two who dance together for a while (June Omura and Craig Biesecker on opening night) are aware that fate is separating them; Foster drew the words to “Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love?” (limpidly sung by Eileen Clark and Gregory Purnhagen) from Romeo and Juliet’s morning argument.
At the end of Somebody’s Coming, everyone reprises and exchanges themes from all the songs—as if the tender feelings and steps were communal property. And at one point in the big, muscular 1997 Rhymes With Silver, to Lou Harrison’s fine score, Omura and Joe Bowie (looking especially vivid these days) are ballroom dancing when women and men add on behind them to form one giant couple.
In Morris’s new Rock of Ages, set to the ecstatic adagio from Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat, the four dancers (and the male-female ratio) are different at each performance and the pairings are fluid; the four (David Leventhal and Julie Worden, Bowie and Amber Darragh on opening night) share steps, thread through one another’s duets, change partners. And all are dressed alike (by Katherine McDowell) in black pants and dark-green velvet tops. In accord with Schubert, Morris contrasts romantic enigma—Darragh on her belly jerking upward in a slight spasm, Leventhal suddenly falling—with hortatory boldness: people sailing into aerial turns with one leg flaring out to the side like a banner.
The partners in the very funny From Old Seville are compelled to dance together despite their differences. Lauren Grant is drinking at a little makeshift bar tended by John Heginbotham when Morris walks purposefully and rather grimly in. The two toss back shots, and when a recorded song by Manuel Requiebros starts up, they embark on a fierce Sevillanas, castanets and all. Each time a copla ends, they return to the bar. Once, Morris leaves the tireless Grant early; once, as he rejoins her, he sighs as if to say, “Won’t this woman ever stop?” They’re a great pair: tiny Grant powerful and matter-of-fact, and the bulky Morris heated to increasing flamboyance.
Morris’s inspired gestures are often so simple that they might even seem trite if they didn’t respond so perfectly to the scores. The music-dance pairing is the single most enduring union in his work, and the result can exalt you or move you to tears. The gifted singers and instrumentalists (including stellar cellist Wolfram Koessel and pianist Steven Beck) were as vital a part of Morris’s exhilarating BAM season as the magnificent dancers.
If David Neumann is everyman, then everyman is one smart dude of a choreographer. Alone onstage near the beginning of his tough, the tough, he responds with subtle comedic timing to such words as “It will come down to this: Mankind is standing around.” Will Eno’s text, recited by DJ Mendel’s disembodied voice, dogs Neumann a/k/a Steve as he drops something and peers down (“See Steven looking everywhere”).
This guy is not alone in his humdrum life. Did I say humdrum? Outfitted in black jumpsuits with touches of red, Kimiye Corwin, Taryn Griggs, Karinne Keithley, Erin Wilson, Chris Yon, and Neumann deconstruct what might be each one’s any old day with terrific flair, while Hal Hartley’s score peppers them with suitably ironic sounds and music. Their activities include dancing casually but elegantly performed; small, precise pantomimes; and wacky “jobs.” Corwin whistles while throwing her stiff arms vigorously around; pushing her bangs up becomes a compulsive act. Meetings aren’t always cordial. Griggs lays Yon out and sits on him; they fight like tots, wincing and slapping at the air between them. Corwin touches Wilson’s shoulder and is rebuffed; their struggle morphs into a rapid pattern that ends the dance as a small amount of sparkling glitter falls.
Yon is the patsy, Buster Keaton-droll as he toddles on and off, peeking at the women from behind pillars. In a routine worthy of the Marx Brothers, he and Neumann march fiercely toward each other and—oops!—pass on by, as they try to figure out which territory is whose to claim. Their duet also includes goofy maneuvers and silly runs. At one point unseen people up on the balcony race about heavy-footed and rain marbles onto the dancefloor; Yon can’t keep up with what are supposed to be his sound effects. Neumann has arranged the not-so-mundane material with a skilled eye for surprising contrasts and rhythmic kick. As the beguiling dancers gallop and stumble through their activities, individuality beats routine to a standstill.