A title like Looky opens little doors in the mind: “looky” as in “Here comes cookie,” or as in some cocky kid’s “Looky what I got!” When applied to a dance by Mark Morris, it also refers to spectatorship— both the audience’s role and a choreographic theme.
At the work’s Boston premiere, a computerized update of a player piano sat onstage, its keys going up and down by themselves. At Jacob’s Pillow, we have to make do with a spotlit bench and a taped performance of composer (and Voice critic) Kyle Gann’s Studies for Disklavier. The first of five sparkly pieces, Tango da Chiesa, starts out as if single bass notes and single treble ones were walking together over rocky terrain, their stumbles and unanswered questions jolting the rhythms. At other times, Gann, who wrote a book about Conlon Nancarrow, seems to be channeling that composer’s dementedly rapid sound jungles, along with morsels of honky-tonk piano and jazz.
Looky is more about behavior than about dancing, Morris gives us as much to see as Gann gives us to hear in the way of witty bustle and jostling individual voices. Wearing black-and-white costumes plundered from other Morris works, the 18 dancers stroll around as if at an art gallery. They peer respectfully at a very tiny, importantly illuminated object. They sit and chat. John Heginbotham is a tour guide, shepherding wide-eyed Michelle Yard, Joe Bowie, David Leventhal, and Noah Vinson. Craig Biesecker can’t keep his hands off Julie Worden. Samuel Black keeps his smart dog (Maile Okamura) on an invisible leash.
After a bout of waltzing gives way to a quickie sketch class, the scene changes, and we’re in a Tombstone bar, Hollywood style. Four people play cards; another four shoot craps. Lauren Grant, a drunken floozie, sprawls on a chair. Bradon McDonald, sashaying about, might be the hostess. Bowie and Elisa Clark (as a swaggering cowpoke) get into a slo-mo gunfight, with onlookers taking sides in the melee. A brief folkish dance by three quartets, and we’re back in the art world, this time in a museum sculpture gallery. Performers strike poses atop chairs, and others come to stare—awed, bored, or reacting crudely. In the end, one couple sits upstage watching some jazzy dancing, while another pair sits downstage watching us watch them.
The other three pieces on the program were accompanied by Tanglewood Music Center Fellows: Yauheniya Yesmanovich’s splendid performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto graced Morris’s eponymous 2007 piece, and Yegor Shevtsov gave an equally fine reading of Stravinsky’s “Serenade in A” for Candelflowerdance (2005). Pianists Tatiana Vassilieva and Bonnie Wagner and singers Katherine Whyte, Jamie Barton, Siddhartha Misra, and Mischa Bouvier collaborated on Brahms’s ravishing “Liebesliederwaltzer, op. 52,” for Morris’s 1989 New Love Song Waltzes.
Watching this beautiful dance, I was thinking—not for the first time—how Morris’s duets are rarely exclusive. Couples waltz tenderly, but if a third person should enter, he or she is welcomed. A man leaves his partner and walks offstage; no regrets on either side. “I have to go,” he seems to say. “You stay here. You’ll be fine with them.” And she is. In the end, everyone takes a turn with Biesecker before exiting. This unstopping, ever-changing waltz is not about fickleness, but about the expansiveness of love.
The U.K.-based Henri Oguike Dance Company followed the Mark Morris Dance Company into the Ted Shawn Theatre for the season’s penultimate week. The extremely gifted Oguike, who began to choreograph in 1999, has Morris’s wide-ranging taste in music. His program featured keyboard music by Domenico Scarlatti, a piece for string ensemble by Steve Martland, the Saharan blues guitar of Ali Farka Touré, and Japanese taiko drumming. Oguike’s musicality is not as developed as Morris’s, however. Although he too enjoys reiterating and developing a movement theme in relation to a musical one, he doesn’t unpack it the way Morris does to tell you something new about it and the people who perform it.
Oguike’s choreography emphasizes clarity—nothing looks smudgy or ill-considered, no matter how fast or physically complicated. Half-Welsh, half-Nigerian, Oguike has lived in both his parents’ birthplaces, and the African influence is as strong as his teenage breakdancing and his training in contemporary dance. His expert performers often bend forward from the hips, roll their torsos, jut their hips out, rhythmically pump their rib cages, and work their shoulders. Despite their suppleness and sinuous arms, they’re hard-bodied and emphatic; they may allow a gesture of attack to morph into something softer, but relaxation isn’t something they practice.
The six white-clad people in White Space might be engaged in a contradance. Their somewhat mocking bows, mated with the harsh flourishes of Scarlatti sonatas played on a harpsichord, evoke 18th-century manners. When Nuno Campos twists intricately around, first with Noora Kela, then with Laura Peña Nuñez, he rolls his eyes in polite exasperation.
Strutting on tiptoe and pecking with their heads, stroking their bodies and casting glances our way, men and women alike suggest both mincing courtiers and contemporary streetwise seductresses.
Oguike himself is a remarkable performer. In his Expression Lines, to Touré’s moody music, he seems caught between extremes—darkness and the golden beams from onstage spotlights—trying to get comfortable in his skin. His animal sensuality is magnified and made bolder in Tiger Dancing. Martland’s violins seem to scratch and pluck at the dancers as they come and go, prowling and crouching and lunging alone or in immaculate synchrony with others.
Second Signal is the program’s high point. Mark Alcock, James Barrow, and Ed Pickering play the taiko drums onstage, their ferocious energy a goad to the dancers. Fukiko Takase begins with her legs planted wide apart, letting the biggest drum’s thudding beats prime her. There’s more variety than in the other pieces: big strides, jumps, sudden explosions. People come and go as if feeding into an ongoing ritual that allows Chihiro Kawasaki to go briefly crazy and a line of women to stand and thrust their chests at invisible opponents. The constant level of energy and intensity here seems strongly motivated, real, all-involving. And it thrills the audience.
During the Pillow’s final week, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs in the Shawn and the Bebe Miller Company in the smaller Duke, while Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre takes the audience through the wood in her wonderful Invisible Wings, honoring the site’s history as a way station on the Underground Railroad.