Long considered the flamboyant bad-boy of postmodern dance, Mark Morris brought his troupe to the Schwartz Center on March 15 and 16, to present “All Fours” set to Bartók’s feisty String Quartet No. 4 and “Violet Cavern” set to music by the jazz trio The Bad Plus, who performed live in the pit. Both pieces were more muted than the outrageous Morris choreography that scintillated audiences and scandalized critics in the ’80’s and ’90’s when Morris’ — often literal — cheekiness onstage rivaled the audacity of his acerbic tongue off it.
But if we were presented with a slightly more sober Morris, perhaps it is because dance audiences have become conditioned to his antics and unapologetic sense of fun. Morris must now work both within and against a tradition that he himself has helped to create. In this way, the two dances on the program succeeded in the difficult task of being kitschy without being cheap, knowingly ironic without being merely arch.
Much of the sly, parodic humor of “All Fours” relied upon the audience’s awareness of the modern dance conventions with which it toyed. In the first movement, a bevy of dancers pranced in from the wings wearing an all-black mishmash between street-clothes and workout gear, a few of the men even sporting velveteen dinner jackets. One repeated motif had several dancers in facing diagonal rows halt in mid-stride while their arms sliced scissor-like through the air in time to the dissonant bowing of the strings.
Morris is infamous for what has been called his “Mickey Mouse” choreography that bounces up on the upbeat and down on the downbeat: his comeback is that the critics forget that someone once had to choreograph Mickey Mouse. Yet, without much syncopated movement and numerous iterations of the same motifs, I ground my teeth uneasily with fear that this was, in fact, an urbane parody of modern dance and not some generic mock-up or second-rate Morris piece.
By the second movement, however, there could be no doubt about the choreographic originality or the dancers’ chops when Craig Biesecker and Bradon McDonald cavorted onto the stage in all their white spandexed glory. Their pas de deux seemed to spoof the old conundrum of agency between the dancer and the dance, alternating between graceful chasing scenes and contorted yanks and tugs as if their bodies had suddenly become marionettes. At one point, both froze like bugs plastered to flypaper as two other dancers supported them, seeming to slide them along the fourth wall. The movement ended with each dancer pulling the other in for a kiss even as each held the other away with a hand so that their arms formed a perfect square: an image of conflicted homosexual desire that elicited guffaws from the audience.
The central movement of the piece introduced two women, Lauren Grant and Michelle Yard, also wearing white spandex, into the ever-entangled “love-rectangle.” McDonald and Grant scampered in a figure-eight pattern around a crouched Yard and an upright Biesecker until it became impossible to distinguish who was pursuing whom—then, as Grant leaped away from McDonald’s grasp, she was unexpectedly caught in mid-air by the arms of Biesecker just as McDonald bumped up against the backside of Yard. This tableaux kept breaking apart and reforming until the repetition — and not the movement itself — became funny, metaphorically portraying how we can still be blindsided by love even when we’re looking for it.
The next movement, with its playfully pizz’ed allegretto tempo, deliberately partnered two unique body types: the tall, black, Amazon-like physique of Yard and the shorter and somewhat stockier, blonde Grant. Yard displayed a deft sense of balance, proficiently mirroring the line of Grant’s turns as she arched her back and bent her knee at a similarly steep angle, despite the difficulty of having an obviously higher center of gravity.
When the last movement brought back the ensemble dressed in their echt-modern all-black uniforms, everyone could relax and enjoy the sheer high camp.
“Violet Cavern” offered sweeping stage pictures in its meditation on gravity, that strange force which grounds the modern dance tradition against its reality-denying older sister: ballet. The most repeated and stunning motif was of two dancers lying prone on the floor who scooted their bodies forward with their legs while they held hands with a dancer between them who leaned her torso gently backwards as she strolled across the stage. At one point, a flotilla of such dance trios seemed to water-ski across the stage in a cross-fire from the wings as other solo dancers appeared to swim between them. The stage appeared magically transformed into an aquarium. Overhead, the overlapping, fractured planes of Stephen Handee’s set hovered at different depths, adding to the spatial fantasia.
Another breathtaking moment that both defied — and defined — gravity occurred when several dancers struck “superman” poses as they were held aloft, transfixed momentarily in their flight, until the dancer who held them ran backwards, accelerating as if gravity had been inexplicably switched to the horizontal axis. In a further instance of enchantment, dancers of either gender would leap majestically into another’s arms only to be hurled violently down, a flippant visual pun on the gravitas of modern dance and how it can temporarily lift our fallen natures.
For the final image of “Violet Cavern,” the stage filled with the troupe spinning like dervishes with arms outstretched, then toppling one-by-one as if they were dizzy tops — or young dancers so giddy with movement they had forgotten to spot. Yet, as the curtain fell, two dancers remained whirling, just as the minds of the audience members were likewise sent home spinning.