Bartók, Stravinsky, Milhaud. Only in the heyday of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the Ballets Suedois would you be likely to find works by these adventurous 20th-century composers programmed together as hand-in-glove accompaniments to choreography. The first three dances featured on Mark Morris’s third week at BAM offer a variegated mini-festival of European music written during the 1920s: Igor Stravinsky’s Serenade in A (1925), played by pianist Steven Beck; Darius Milhaud’s turbulentLa Création du monde*, Op. 58 (1923) performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble conducted by Robert Cole; and Béla Bartók’s String Quartet no. 4 (1928), played by Yosuke Kawasaki and Jennifer Curtis (violins), Jessica Troy (viola), and Morris’s music director, Wolfram Koessel (cello).
It must have been only about two years after Serenade was composed that the young choreographer George Balanchine, creating a ballet to Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagéte, learned an important precept from studying the music. Wrote Balanchine years later, “In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I too, could eliminate.” In Morris’s new and lovely Candleflowerdance, as in Stravinsky’s Serenade, variations and implications flower within limits. It may be no accident that the excellent pianist’s hands stay mostly near the center of the keyboard. And just as the composer establishes a musical space and inhabits it, Morris creates an intense focus on a visual space: a medium-sized square that’s defined by its white perimeter, taped to the floor in the middle of the stage.
Groups of lit candles in tall glasses sit in two of the stage’s far corners and a vase of flowers beside the piano in another corner reflect the piece’s dedication: “For Susan Sontag.” The delineated space could be seen as an arena for lively thought or a place to compress mourning and memorialize a vital mind.
In the beginning, the six dancers (Craig Biesecker, Charlton Boyd, Rita Donahue, Lauren Grant, Bradon McDonald, and Julie Worden), wearing Katherine McDowell’s pants and short-sleeved shirts in different colors, are clumped in one corner of the “arena.” Their gestures, such as pointing an index finger upward, have the stop-and-start feel of some of the musical episodes. Individuals leave the square, but it draws them in for, say, a sober little game, with pairs forming and re-forming “London Bridge” arms. Emotional implications are presented reticently, briefly. During one of Stravinsky’s softer passages in 3/4 time, Donahue whispers to Biesecker, who puts a hand on McDonald’s shoulder. Later, when Donahue sags backward in one corner of the “arena,” two colleagues brace her from behind, and you get the sudden image of a losing battle; later still in another corner, they brace . . . no one. Gestures like reaching out or covering the face with both hands recur in such a way that they are intensified and objectified at the same time.
As individuals or pairs take turns dancing in the marked-off space while others watch, Morris makes you think about these people, about their occasional tender contacts and about the difference between being out of the square and being in it. Over and over toward the end, they step into a formation and slip across the floor, falling as they go. At the very end, Donahue is held aloft, looking back over her shoulder at the corner where she and her comrades began. In Stravinsky’s hands, a serenade—an evening song—becomes something grainier in tone, less freely lyrical. Morris give us the night (candles) and the fragrance (flowers) and an architecture designed to elide clarity and mystery.
When I wrote about Morris’s Cargo at its Tanglewood premiere last June, I didn’t know that the title referred to 19th-century Melanesian cults, and that I ought to be thinking of Europe’s beguilement with the “primitif” in terms of Gauguin in the Pacific as well as the African and African-American cultures referred to in Milhaud’s score and Blaise Cendrar’s scenario for the Ballets Suedois production of Création. Nor was the fine Seiji Ozawa Hall an ideal setting for the work. The musicians sat behind the stage on the balcony level, giving the impression of the civilized folks looking down on Morris’s primal society in its birth throes. On BAM’s bare stage in Nicole Pearce’s excellent lighting, with dancers crouching and lurking out of the action where the wings usually hang, the tension between safety and daring becomes tauter.
Nine Morrisites in white underwear, crawling and shambling and scampering in to stare at a pole that has appeared in their world are a marvel of emergent humanoid behavior (John Heginbotham’s sway-backed, bent forward, splay-legged walk wins my vote for the evening’s Best Simian award). In this work, too, Morris limits his palette. All the action focuses on three poles, which may or may not stand for the three divinities in the Milhaud-Cendrars-Fernand Léger ballet. Through them, this tribe becomes more upright and bold, learns to cooperate, and sets up religion. Images of sacrifice (Grant draped over a pole hefted by Biesecker and McDonald) yield to idols (women carried seated on poles), to priesteses (Grant, Maile Okamura, and Julie Worden) making a horizontal fence of the sticks and shoving away all who get too close, then creating a wooden triangle for the others to pass through.
Naturally, there is contention for leadership and other forms of struggle. People try to brace the objects up like flagpoles; they attempt to climb them. Milhaud’s music provides ironic whiffs of civilization in its jazz riffs for alto sax, and Morris echoes the naiveté of 1920s European Afro chic in a profiled walk with hips swinging rhythmically forward and back. Religion, interestingly, seems to come a cropper. Biesecker ends up crushed beneath the poles, and, after poking him cautiously, everyone scuttles off in fear, behaving as if a return to a more innocent state might be a good idea.
The five-movement All Fours (2003) is another austere piece. Through Bartók’s sudden silences, contrasts of forcefulness and delicacy, tightly coiled clusters of sound, and hints of Hungarian folk dance, Morris weaves a bold and stunning group rite for 12 dancers—an essay on melding quartets. Pearce’s sudden changes of light create enigmatic drama, as does the device of separating the group into eight people in black and brown clothes and four dressed in white (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz). The odd, strutting walks of the eight, their rippling arms and praying hands, contrast with the behavior of the four (a rapid skittering duet by Biesecker and McDonald, an even faster allegro by Worden and Marjorie Folkman, and the significant way in which two, several times, almost formally, cover each other’s mouths).
To end the evening, all onstage and in the audience let down their hair. Here comes another sort of classic 20th-century music. Morris’s 1990 romp Going Away Party is set to Western Swing hits created by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys between 1935 and 1973 and played live at BAM by the Western Caravan. Morris loves and honors this music too, and his choreography recreates a Saturday night dance with lusty couples, guys peeing out back behind the barn, and women showing them a thing or two. The choreography plays funky movement games with queries like, “Seen my milk cow?” Charlton Boyd takes Morris’s former part as the odd man out who’s leaving town, ingeniously woven into a square dance, and all but forgotten in the evening’s revelry. Grant and David Leventhal, Worden and Heginbotham, Okamura and Gregory Nuber, all decked out in western finery by Christine Van Loon, play flirtation and dance fever with gusto, and as the terrific band swings into “When You Leave Amarillo, Turn Out the Lights,” you realize the evening’s ending and wish it wouldn’t.