We're sure you've seen the tube posters advertising Mark Morris as "some of the best dance in the world today." "Londonist," we hear you asking, "this can't actually be true, can it?"
Well, actually, it sort of is, although comparisons between choreographers can be a more than a little apples-and-oranges. But let's put it this way: we have seen V, performed last night in Sadler's Wells, four times in various venues, and there is this one moment in the last movement which makes us cry every single time. For a dance without a story — even without particularly concrete emotional content — this is quite a feat.
Mark Morris is habitually termed the most "musical" of choreographers — his is both praised and criticized for the fact that his dances "grow out of the music." However, because dance fans tend to be crap at talking about music, and music fans tend to be crap at talking about dance, the actual nature of Morris's achievement is rarely explained. After all, all dances (with the exception of Merce Cunningham's darker moments) somehow relate to the music. But at the same time, a slavish reflection of the surface rhythms of the music is derided by many dancers as "mickey-mousing." (And, in fact, tin-eared dancers and dance fans often accuse Morris himself of this so-called crime against dance's autonomy.)
What Morris does, rather, is actively engage with the music he chooses, with his interpretive strategy constantly shifting — from relatively straightforward mickey-mousing, to utter disregard of the musical surface, to (most importantly) a fascinating continuum of approaches in between. A basic example: there are few if any choreographers who dare to repeat a sequence of steps exactly when the music repeats exactly. Mark Morris does it frequently, but always with a twist — in the opening passage of Mosaic & United, set to a string quartet by Henry Cowell, we hear chorale-like passage that lasts about a minute, then we hear the same music played an octave higher, with a thinner, more wirey sound. The dancers during the first go-through of the chorale perform a series of strong, abstract movements, and then, during the repeat, perform exactly the same movements, but with the entire ensemble rotated 90 degrees. The lines that were once parallel to the audience are now perpendicular to the audience. Just as the music repeats, but is changed, so the dance repeats, but we get, literally, a new perspective on the steps.
This is a very simple example. No other choreographer finds such a variety of ways to react both to the sound and the structure of the music he chooses. Consequently, no other choreographer uses gestures, postures, and sequences that so clearly point both backward and forward in time. A gesture that means "reaching out" is transformed, through rearranging the bodies on stage, into "reaching towards," into an embrace. A sequence for five dancers is repeated literally (when the music repeats) but with only one dancer. Passages which looked the same when danced sequentially are revealed to have been different all along when they are repeated side by side. Morris never lets his audience stop thinking.
If this sounds overly cold and classicist — well, it can be. Certainly the beauty of Mosaic & United, from 1993, involves little in the way of emotional exuberance. But Morris always had an expressive impulse, and in more recent works passion bubbles to the surface. Candleflowerdance, which received its UK premiere last night, is set to Stravinsky in his neo-classical mode. The music thus obliquely references the gestures and forms of eighteenth-century music, and Morris responds by building a dance around what, to our eyes, looked like gestures out of classical sculpture of eighteenth-century acting manuals — like dictionary illustrations of "rage" "grief" and "supplication." We were stunned.
And then there is V. Choreographed to Schumann's monumental Piano Quintet in E-flat, it is a work of overwhelming ambition and scope, but one that wears its intellectual rigour very lightly. It has moments of obviousness that just miss being banal, moments of sheer wit that makes us giggle, and moments that gesture towards transcendence. We don't much like to use the word masterpiece, and yet — when, at the coda of the final movement, melodies and gestures from the first movement return, transformed into a swirling polyphonic mass that threatens to spin out of control... we feel the tears welling up, and at that moment we could really believe those tube posters.
This program repeats at Sadler's Wells Friday and Saturday afternoon. The other program, including the primal, brutal Grand Duo, plays tonight and Saturday evening. If Wednesday night's house was anything to go by, it looks like there are plenty of seats available. Photo by Robbie Jack from the Sadler's Wells website.