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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 8, 2016
Category: review

Mark Morris Offers Gems of India, and Brooklyn Too

By Rachel Straus for MusicalAmerica.com

November 8, 2016

As the curator of the White Lights Festival’s “Sounds of India” series, choreographer Mark Morris brought his company to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, in a gem-like program that illuminated his own, personal relationship with India. In 1981, Morris toured that country as a performer with Laura Dean and her company. Once established as a choreographer, in the 1990s, he returned biannually, becoming, as he wrote in an essay in the program, “a true amateur, with a working knowledge, deep respect, and devotion to Indian culture.” One of the glories of the 65-minute evening (viewed November 3) was its profound realization of that respect and devotion. Unlike Ruth St. Denis, an American modern dance pioneer who made her career as a solo artist impersonating Indian dances, Morris never set out to reproduce the culture’s work so much as to embrace it to better define his own. “All of my work, and pretty much all Indian dance,” he says in an interview in the program, “is tied very directly to melody [raga], rhythm [tala], gesture [mudra], and expression [abhinaya].”

Dallas McMurray performs Mark Morris’s solo dance “O Rangasayee.”Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

Dallas McMurray performs Mark Morris’s solo dance “O Rangasayee.”Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

The highlights of the evening were O Rangasayee (1984) and the world premiere of Pure Dance Items. The former, created around a recording of O Rangasayee by the renowned devotional song maker Sri Tyagaraja (1767-1847), is a tour-de-force that Morris created for himself and never, until now, has set on another. It starts with the dancer, in this case Dallas McMurray, in a deep squat. In Philip Sandström’s lighting, the musculature of McMurray’s shoulders and legs gave him a totemic quality, like a statue made out of resin-colored clay. When he unfolded the solid trunk of his torso, stared straight out into the audience and presented his palms, his costume (a diaper-like loin cloth), cherubic face, and henna-painted fingers did not spellbind as much as delight. Yet McMurray’s childlike aura was quickly dispelled by the gravitas of his movement. It featured stillness that read like silence and polyrhythmic twirling footwork that dialogued with the singer’s rapid guttural chant expressing sublime chaos.

O Rangasayee is constructed along the lines of minimalism in that it involves approximately seven-movement phrases that are repeated, varied, and altered in tempos. As the dance builds through repetition and choreo-musical elements, there was one moment when McMurray galloped forward and threw his torso backward. This split-second pose is the quintessence of gestural ecstasy. In the last movement phrase, McMurray began to fall and fail from exhaustion. His body sank the floor (knees, hips, head), like a classical column crumbling in slow motion. Uncannily, McMurray’s body parts seemed to freeze in the mind’s eye before their gravitational denouement. At the final moment, McMurray shot his red-painted fingers upward, his heart visibly drumming, his arm outstretched in a defiant cry.

Serenade (2003), which also originated as a solo for Morris, opened the program. Leslie Garrison performed its five brief sections, some using a single prop (tiny bench, long cylindrical piece of wood, castanets) to Lou Harrison’s Serenade for Guitar, sensitively played by Robert Beliníc (guitar) and Stefan Schatz (percussion), both seated downstage right. Garrison’s no nonsense approach was underlined in Isaac Mizrahi’s de-sexualized costume of a black billowy skirt and a white tight-fitting Japanese-style jacket, which gave her upper body a box-like quality.

While Serenade verges on the somber (and restrictive), Morris’s The “Tamil Film Songs in Stereo” Pas de Deux (1983) is a campy sexual romp. Dancer Brian Lawson is first seen costumed in a flashy, high-cut Lycra leotard; he is seated in a dance studio, with its de rigueur props: a ballet barre and hanging tutu. The work’s narrative stems from a Tamil song whose lyrics describe a voice teacher (Lawson) becoming increasingly frustrated with his student (Stacy Martorana). To the scratchy recording’s mostly high-pitched nasal singing, they enact a pitch-perfect parody with the flighty Lawson (originally played by Morris) impersonating the narcissistic dance teacher, who revels in the fact that his student can’t manifest as much flash and leg as he can.

Pure Dance Items, whose vocabulary closely resembles that of the other works on the program, is set to six sections of Terry Riley’s 1986 Salome Dances for Peace, performed live by a string quartet of MMDG Music Ensemble players. In the first movement, a serious-looking dancer, arguably representing Mark Morris, sits on a stool, conducting a group of dancers with vigorous arm movements that they duplicate in full-bodied, full-throttle fashion to his right (a scenario that mimics how many dances are made in the studio). The stool appears in other sections of the work, with other dancers representing Morris. The choreographer claims the final moments, standing on the stool in the Indian yoga posture called the tree, balancing on one leg with his arms extending to the horizon. An exhausted dancer lies at his feet, collapsed; the Morris double is Shiva, the hindu god of destruction and resurrection, soaring above his completed creation.

The pleasures of Pure Dance Items derive in part from Morris’s physical realization of Riley’s minimalist score and its manipulation of motifs, reflected in the complex and playful groupings he creates for his dancers. One minute they are like flex-footed classical Indian dancers, later they are like giant Hindu gods, with one seated on the shoulders of another. Adding to the variety and sense of play are Elizabeth Kurtzman’s same-sex costumes, constructed of tights (cut at the mid-thigh) and nerdy bowling shirts, yet no two of the same palette. The dancers’ speedy interweaving and transformations thus create a riot of kaleidoscopic hues. Minimalist repetition aside, no two sections of the dance ever looked (or felt) the same as the other. Forgive the cliché, but Pure Dance Items brought to mind the multiple flavors of Indian cuisine and its unexpected delights to the palette.

Copyright © 2016, Musical America

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