Magazine article The New Yorker

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Magazine article The New Yorker

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Article excerpt

One thing that Mark Morris knows how to do is to create an ambiguity that feels like clarity. Often in his work, a person, after doing something that you think you understand, does something that utterly contradicts that. Or he goes on doing his thing, but someone at the side of the stage does something altogether different. It's not that Morris's work is hard. He just doesn't like to give everything away at the start.

Morris tends to avoid the male-female pas de deux. Long ago, when asked why he left the Eliot Feld company (his first real job in New York), he said that part of the reason was that he "got tired of pretending to be a straight guy in love with a ballerina." The male-female pas de deux is the center of ballet--of some modern dance, too--but people eventually got used to the fact that Morris preferred the ensemble as his basic unit, the main carrier of his meanings. It made them respect him, even: it seemed democratic and anti-sexist. Actually, Morris did make male-female pas de deux now and then, but they were always bent in some way: comical ("A Spell"), spiritual ("Beautiful Day"), angry ("The Argument"), adolescent ("Romeo and Juliet"). Never did he take on directly the big, purple subject of romantic love.

Now, more than thirty years into his career, he's done it. "Jenn and Spencer," for Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez (what will Morris do when he needs to change the cast?), was one of three new pieces in his recent season at his Brooklyn headquarters. In it, the two dancers can't bear to be apart. Rolling on the floor, they keep their hands locked, or they press the soles of their feet together--both very difficult maneuvers. Also, every seemingly sexy transaction becomes awkward. Ramirez crawls under the hem of Weddel's floor-length gown, but he's not looking up her dress; he immediately sticks his head out the other side. Weddel runs her face down his body, in a spiral, but she lingers on no part. She lies on the floor and he pulls her around, by her arm, in a "clock": three hundred and sixty degrees. This makes her dress hike up to her waist; we see her white thighs, her underpants.

Donald Mouton, who danced in the company in the nineteen-eighties, once said that, when Morris was teaching a dance, if you did a step easily, "that meant you weren't going to get to do it." Morris wanted steps to look effortful, even ungainly. Thirty years later, he still does, often. It means something to him. "Jenn and Spencer" is about how love humbles us, embarrasses us. (In the music, Henry Cowell's Suite for Violin and Piano, the violin seems to slice though the piano part, almost to make it bleed.) Near the end, Ramirez picks Weddel up, by an arm and a leg, and plasters her against his back, horizontally. By that time, you've got used to what Morris is up to. How nice, you think: here's real love, fumbling, unglamorized. But then it's not nice--it's rude. Ramirez drops Weddel on the floor. Soon afterward, she appears to sock him in the face. Then she walks off, and he stands there, looking at the spot where she disappeared, as the lights go out. Morris knows a lot about our lives.

If "Jenn and Spencer" represents one kind of Morris's habitual ambiguity, "A Wooden Tree," also new to New York, shows us another, in which either the song or the dance is figurative--it tells us about a tree or a chicken or whatever--and the other element departs from that message. "A Wooden Tree," a suite of fourteen short dances, is set to recorded songs by the Scottish composer, singer, and, I would say, surrealist Ivor Cutler (1923-2006). …

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