As cheeky and protean as his dances, choreographer Mark Morris plays the roles of shrewd experimentalist and flagrant classicist with equal relish. Over the past three decades, he has evolved from a boisterous folk dancer to an openly gay celebrity to a fleshy middle-aged guy hailed by many as the most innovative choreographer of his generation. What hasn't changed is his wide-ranging intelligence, succulent wit, outspoken opinions--and a masterly grasp of how formal structure can reveal human behavior in all its volatile diversity.
Picture renegade formalist Quentin Tarantino having his way with Shakespeare's canon, and you have some idea of the chutzpah and invention that Morris brings to serious concert music. Or any music, for that matter. Morris's voracious appetite embraces everything from J.S. Bach to Indian Tamil film scores to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Through an exhilarating amalgam of modern, ballet, Balkan folk, and Asian dance forms, he illuminates the music's structure while inviting audiences to hear (and see) it in radically new ways.
His sublime 1988 interpretation of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, for instance, includes a hunt scene replete with dancers personifying yapping dogs, scurrying foxes, even shrubs and trees. Julie Worden, a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, describes his unique approach to one of the works on the Northrop program this weekend: All Fours is set to a Bartok string quartet that most people think of as undanceable. But Mark gives it the immediacy of pop music by clarifying its complexity through the visual play of instruments," says Worden, speaking by phone from Manhattan. And audiences will also have the rare opportunity to hear all the music on the program performed live.
"Each dance is a distinct world onto itself," says company member David Levanthal during a recent phone conversation. "Transitioning from dance to dance on a program requires switching gears on the fly." In the Northrop program Levanthal goes from a 1984 work My Party, a sly frolic that he describes as "very junior high, with social dance motifs and luscious, weighted movement", to the 2001 V, "...which feels lighter, more fluid, more balletic."
Set to a quintet by Robert Schumann, V features two platoons of dancers who collide and intersect in dazzling permutations of V and T formations. But football this is not, as dancers fold into one another like intricate origami creating images of human struggle and transformation. It's visual spectacle animated by a rambunctious communal spirit (well, maybe a little like football).
"Deep down in Mark's dances there is a place where the integrity of the work and the individuality of the dancers has to come together," says Levanthal. "His work allows dancers the be human."