Theater archives

Prepare to Be Surprised


“I love the way Mark Morris uses music,” says a woman to her companion in the lobby at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “It’s just what I would do.” Though some people grumble over Morris’s intimate couplings of dance with music, most respond with delight. “Listen, just listen, isn’t this great!” he seems to be saying (and there’s a lot of wonderful music to hear and see in his 20th anniversary season, at BAM through March 25).

While Michelle Shocked sings “Stillborn,” one of the songs she wrote for Morris’s 1993 Home, six women stroll holding hands and make low-key gestures of sadness and consolation; the dance seems to be accompanying the song rather than vice versa. Yet this lovely, homespun piece also contains one of Morris’s most straightforward dialogues with music. He, June Omura, Michelle Yard, Guillermo Resto, Bradon McDonald, and Anne Sellery line up facing us and execute a rapid-fire clog dance. At one point in the frisky male duet Silhouettes, Shawn Gannon and David Leventhal stand and let the arpeggios in Richard Cumming’s piano pieces ripple from their toes to their heads. On a less obvious level, while the flight of steps at the back of Falling Down Stairs (along with some of the big suspended movements and clever line formations) may fleetingly evoke Doris Humphrey’s 1938 Passacaglia, it also provides a visual analogy for the step-by-step climbs and descents in Bach’s Third Suite for Unaccompanied Cello (elegantly played by Matt Haimovitz).

In one of his newest works, Sang-Froid, Morris settles lovingly into the phrases of eight Chopin piano pieces, but homes in on some larger ideas. Holding hands, Marjorie Folkman and John Heginbotham begin an étude with a step that’s an exuberant space-devouring variant of Polish folk dance. The Nocturne in F spawns games of Red Rover and proliferating (and dissolving) three-person totem poles.

As always, Morris celebrates the down-to-earth, the spirit of community, and the unexpected, loving to show how steps change when different wonderful people dance them. Matthew Rose slowly turns Mireille Radwan-Dana, and she melts back against him and fans her legs out; at the end of their brief passage, she turns and clings to him. Couple after couple echo this duet, until you feel that at any minute you might do it too. Then, suddenly and simultaneously, Radwan-Dana falls from the embrace, Folkman takes her place, and pianist Ethan Iverson sounds Chopin’s last chord.

Every time Deborah Hay comes from her headquarters in Austin to perform in New York, I marvel at her high-wire walk between clarity and enigma, between impish humor and profundity. The objective task dances she made during the ’60s at Judson Dance Theater are long past. In her recent book, my body, the buddhist, she writes of reconfiguring “the three-dimensional body into an immeasurable fifty-three trillion cells perceived perceiving, all of them, at once.” At St. Mark’s, she transforms in seconds from shaman to trickster to bawdy comedian to grave adventurer.

Alvin Lucier’s Solo Number 2 prepares us for revelations. The high, sustained tones Elizabeth Farnum sings from the balcony tremble in the vibrations of two pure wave oscillators. Hay enters in silence to perform The Other Side of O. Approaching 60, small, trim, and bold-featured, she’s wearing intricately designed black pants, red shoes, and a big red net pouf on the back of her head. Her feet seem as light as a child’s as she slides them in circling steps. You don’t so much read her gestures or decipher her whispers as inhale them.

In Boom Boom Boom, she’s got a turquoise amulet around her neck and a big “cigar” of rolled paper stuck in her mouth. The cigar becomes a puppet that talks back when she sweetly tries to convince it we’re likable. But she reads a verse of “Hiawatha” with utter seriousness, and as she shakes a little rattle over the blue paper it’s written on, the paper flutters and flies away.

It’s fascinating to see Ros Warby perform her version of Hay’s Fire and then watch Hay do it. Twisting her mouth, inflating her cheeks, drawing out questions like “What do you want?” Warby’s as cool, clear, and in-the-moment as she is when bending her elegantly trained body or placing her long legs. Hay’s friendlier, more impulsive. Cajoling an invisible loved one to look at the moon, she tenderly turns her hands into the two skywatchers and then into a little telescope. With or without it, she’s a seer.

The Guangdong Modern Dance Company was founded in the late 1980s with help, advice, and guest faculty from the American Dance Festival. But this first contemporary group to be funded by the Chinese government is no American clone. The intense, beautifully performed works shown at the Joyce last week are highly patterned, with rhythms that evoke martial arts: strike, hold, exhale, pounce again. I Want to Fly, an arduous solo choreographed by company codirector Liang Xing and thrillingly performed by Hongjun Li, creates a dialogue between thrusting and melting. Li shoots an arm, a leg, his whole self into the air, straining upward even as he’s sinking. In the engrossing Sitting Still by Jijia Sang, people walk in a line that stretches from the back of the stage to the front. By ones and twos, they scuttle out of the relentless progress—so many steps forward, so many back—but inevitably return to it. Some moves suggest farm labor, and Bing Wu’s costumes, rust-colored draped skirts and cloth helmets, subvert gender differences and individuality. The company’s pieces are enigmatic; they end powerfully, but you’re not sure how these final moments came about. At the end of Sitting Still, one person is suddenly isolated on the floor. In Sang’s duet Heart, Shape, Substance, two men (Liang Xing and Liang Zhao) stay apart for a long time, facing different directions as they execute their big, bold moves. In the final moment Zhao walks over and takes his partner’s hand, and Xing falls back as if life were flowing from his body. In Xing’s new 180 Degrees, four women go from curling and stretching on the floor to tracing squares of light (elegantly designed by Jianzhen Liu and Brenda Dolan) to wielding big fans in a cool, dark comment on one of China’s showy popular dances.

Company member Yunna Long’s impressive, if too drawn out, Linglei shows an intruder (Zhao) at odds with a close-knit community. What’s enthralling is less his dilemma or the clumsily tender encounter between him and a woman (Ying Hou) than the group’s behavior. In silver tunics and helmets, the dancers ooze on and, clustered, freeze in a deep lunge, right hands raised like paws, heads turned to survey us. In many subsequent entrances, these cats become squirrels, become birds, become a throng of many animals. They surround him, and he falls slowly. All the pieces seem to deal delicately with desires thwarted or individuals versus society—themes both timely and eternal.