Mark Morris Matches Wits with Beethoven and Ives


I can only imagine what it must be like to dance to the playing of Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma. The spirit manifestation in Mark Morris’s beautiful Visitation doesn’t just happen onstage during Lincoln Center’s “Mostly Mozart” series; it’s Beethoven simmering to life in these two master musicians’ rendering of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major. Op. 102, No. 1. Visitation mingles the everyday with the mysterious. Like the winding dialogue between cello and piano, the patterns of the choreography frequently chain together, separate, re-join, and repeat.

The dancers wear simple, becoming pants and tops (by Elizabeth Kurtzman) in mostly muted colors, and they come and go easily in an open field defined by Nicole Pearce’s lighting, as if to play some game whose rules they’re not sure of. Is Dallas McMurray a visitant, appearing to the others, or are they his dreams? The moods, like those of the music, veer between sunshine and storm. The last of two allegro sections, each of which is preceded by an adagio, is rife with perky jumps and other spirited, airy steps.

But strange things happen. At the end of the first allegro, McMurray enters, ducks under the clasped hands of Craig Biesecker, Joe Bowie, Rita Donahue, and Michelle Yard, at the same time joining their chain; by the time the group has coiled in on itself, he’s upended in a headstand, caught there by eight hands. Blackout. When the lights come on again, he’s alone onstage, still in that precarious pose. Newcomers—John Heginbotham, Julie Worden, Noah Vinson, and Jenn Weddel—enter one by one to take a look at him and explore the soft, changed musical landscape. Composer Kenneth LaFave’s program note says of this adagio that it “searches for a key center like a lost tourist wandering down an unknown street.” In his dance, Morris tells us that, too.

The choreography formalizes apprehension and dread. At times, the eight dancers back away with a warding-off gesture. They shake. Pairs of men briefly lift women laid out, rigid in trance or death, before setting them on their way. Tenderness takes curious forms in a kind of game. Half of the people rush up to the others and touch or embrace them in unexpected ways (say, head to stomach, hand to ankle) and retreat, but at the same time, some of those touched peel off to become touchers in some fascinating unreadable pattern that McMurray might be orchestrating.

The terrific Empire Garden is a denser, shiftier work, as might be expected from its music. And it’s not as odd as you might think that Morris gives a dance set to Charles Ives’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, S.86 a name that conjures up Chinese restaurants. But think of a Szechuan feast with samplings of many dishes running into one another on your plate. This marvelous, sprightly thicket of music, completed by Ives in 1911, lays out aural memories of his student days at Yale, with lectures, fraternity sing-alongs, drills, team sports, and Sunday prayers layering together or intruding on one another. Nothing happens as you’d expect. Sweet waltzes jangle and turn sour. “Old Kentucky Home” bubbles through other, bitterer sounds as if coming up for air.

Kurtzman has costumed the 15 dancers brilliantly in brightly colored fantasies of parade-ground uniforms—all different. As Ax, Ma, and violinist Colin Jacobsen stitch Ives’s amazing designs together, Morris spreads a patchwork of boisterous themes. The dancers perform big, spraddled jumps with hunching shoulders, or suddenly wiggle their fingers gravely. Did I see a few seconds of rifle practice? Prayers infiltrate marching formations and are absorbed into them. Yard sits on one man’s shoulders and makes soft, exalted gestures, while four people bend over to form a surrounding pulpit, their mouths wide open. Everyone else cranes up from the ground; it’s as if she’s preaching to attentive lizards. Other performers are elevated in different ways at different times.

Lavish, deranged, fragmented, and rich in images, Empire Garden is as elegantly controlled as it is wild. In the end, all the previous choreographic motifs recur simultaneously, performed by small groups, and when Ma’s cello takes up again—ravishingly—the great Protestant hymn, “Rock of Ages,” people begin collapsing on each other; others walk backward, belly-up on all fours, their mouths open; still others stand, their attention heavenward: college days as a sensual barrage of sights and sounds. Were they ever so lovely, so perilous?

For Morris’s gorgeous V (2001) to Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Strings, Op. 44, violinist Michi Wiancko and violist Jessica Troy joined the other musicians. And the wonderful dancers—including Elisa Clark, Domingo Estrada Jr., Lauren Grant, David Leventhal, Bradon McDonald, Maile Okamura, and June Omura—swam like enchanted dolphins in Schumann’s currents.