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Listening to beloved music by Schumann, Chopin, Bach, and Brahms at the Mark Morris Dance Center is as close to experiencing an evening of gebrauchmusik as you can get in Brooklyn. Although a studio theater is no 19th-century European parlor, the musicians are only a few feet from some of us. When four fine singers and two pianists pour out Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzer and Morris’s wonderful dancers swoop through his Love Song Waltzes, we’re surrounded by visions of a musical world, and about as near to heaven as we can get.
Whatever music he chooses, Morris draws from it patterns of mingling and separating, leading and following, supporting and spurning that are both inevitable and surprising, even mysterious. What did he hear in Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volston that made him shape the first duet of The Argument as a dispute? Julie Worden and Charlton Boyd bite into their steps as if contention rules their life together. How did he decide that, during a Chopin etude in Sang-Froid, a swarm of fast-stepping dancers should repeatedly buzz up to the fallen Michelle Yard to try and get her on her feet? Or that the “Minute Waltz” would suit a game of Red Rover?
The fascinating new Italian Concerto (excellently played by Colin Fowler) is full of enigmatic gestures. Bach’s composition was supposedly inspired by his transcriptions for keyboard of concerti grossi by Vivaldi, but if Morris has anything Italianate in mind, it emerges mostly in a predilection for gesture. The choreographer himself begins the piece in silence. Dressed in black, he slowly closes the hand he’s holding up with fingers spread, and walks off. David Leventhal and Amber Darragh carry that clenched shape further, thrusting their fists up on the piano’s first hortatory notes. They also snatch at the space and, swirling around each other, reach out as if inviting in an invisible guest. Is it coincidental that, in addition to dancing sprightly horpipe steps, they carefully pull down on the air with their fingers, and later form one hand into the Indian mudra for cow?
Morris’s moving solo to the Andante counters weakness with power, but, although he beats a hand twice above his heart when two insistent bass notes sound, and his theme includes an old-man walk, there’s nothing to suggest aging in his forceful motions of casting out, pushing through, and hauling in. And, after a second duet to Bach’s final Presto for Worden and Dallas McMurray that introduces bright lead-and-follow ideas, Morris joins the four in a rousing passage that reprises almost everything seen so far and ends with the strangest gesture of all. The performers place their hands together just below chest level and delicately draw them apart. Whatever the image means, it is both scrupulous and final, sealing dance and music together.
The “m” in the title of Yoshiko Chuma’s arresting A Page out of Order: M refers to Macedonia, one of three countries where Page, in varying versions, was performed in 2006. Images from the several cultures flash onto screens and erupt from dancers’ mouths and bodies. The nine-person musical ensemble includes three player-composers from the Macedonian band Project Zlust, three Japanese musicians playing traditional instruments, and Japanese singer Sizzle Ohtaka.
The performers manipulate four large open-sided metal cubes by Ralph Lee that Chuma has used in other pieces—creating rooms, corridors, traps. With cloth screens added, the cubes can imprison or conceal a performer, create shadow plays, and receive projected words and images. Displacement and travel emerge as themes, along with the sometimes violent dramas they engender. With offhand athleticism, the performers—Ursula Eagly, Iskra Sukarova, Saori Tsukada, Steven Reker, Ryuji Yamaguchi, Christopher Williams, and Chuma—keep furniture and props such as tennis balls almost constantly moving into new configurations. They toss and slide tables; they make a cube somersault or spin around a dancing figure.
Clips from films by Jacob Burckhardt and excerpts from a 1995 film, After the Rain by Milcho Manchevski, show desert landscapes and images of fire, flood, and collapsed buildings that may relate to the 1963 earthquake in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. Scenes recall the Balkan wars: A man searches, guns are fired, a woman is shot, a wounded boy mourns her. Projected words tell of more recent violence. Williams, yelling, quaking, and falling, or Eagly crawling on her belly may reference these fragments or the performers’ own private histories (there are also projected images of New York). A closeup of an eye with a welling tear is from a 2005 film by Hiroki Oishi, but the subject transcends cultural boundaries. The band, sometimes conducted by Chuma, slips from Balkan folk music into the accompaniment for a Kabuki drama. Ohtaka’s amazing voice is at ease in Japanese melodies and modes that hint at Gregorian chant.
At one point, the cubes form a hanamichi, the ramp for Kabuki entrances and exits, and five performers demonstrate these as if running through a lesson, draping themselves in various fantastic, unauthentic ways in lengths of cloth. Later, three dive onto these “sheets” and roll themselves up (or are rolled up) to be briefly laid out like corpses. At the end, the cubes are being spun on a single corner, as if to remind us of the precarious balance between war and peace, life and death.