Mark this Mark Morris, mark him well. Give him, in fact, an A for originality, A for wit, A for insightful musicality, A for logical unfolding of ideas, A for seemingly inexhaustible dance invention, A for stylistic breadth, A for warmth, A for eloquence. And when you're all done, tear it up and throw it away because grading isn't what it's all about; instead, let's just all give collective thanks that he's among us again here in America.
The Monnaie Dance Group/Mark Morris, as his troupe is now called, was back in Washington last night for the first time since 1987, presenting the first of two programs in a week-long engagement at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, as part of the "Dance America" series. The evening's dances, typical yet merely hinting at Morris's range, included three of the five Washington premieres his 21-member ensemble is performing here, and were characteristically divergent in form and spirit -- "Canonic 3/4 Studies" (1982), an exercise in satirical legerdemain; "Pas de Poisson" (1990), a trifling but waspishly droll abstract charade; "Going Away Party" (1990), endearing horseplay to country-western music; and a heart-stopping paean to romance, "Love Song Waltzes" (1989). The last three were the premieres, all created in Brussels.
Morris and his troupe are residents of Belgium now because a European impresario made them an offer they couldn't refuse -- virtual carte blanche at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie (the Brussels opera house), generous salaries, ample rehearsal time and studios, unstinting production support, an orchestra and a three-year contract (expiring next June). Meanwhile, in his native land, the 34-year-old, Seattle-born choreographer cannot even go the cost of live music for an appearance in this nation's capital. Forget that he has shown himself the deserving heir to the humanistic dance tradition begun by Isadora Duncan and extending through, among others, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Jose Limon and Paul Taylor. Forget the prodigious gifts and the stirring works that have already placed him among the creative dance giants of his era. On this side of the Atlantic, we seem to have a different set of priorities.
"Canonic 3/4 Studies," set to piano waltzes by various composers, as arranged and performed (on tape) by Harriet Cavalli, was seen here in 1985 during Morris's first Kennedy Center visit, but time has hardly diminished the charm of its uproarious ingenuities. It begins with Keith Sabado in an imperious pose, broken as the music begins and he vehemently slices his arms, wags his head and thumps his feet in just such a way as to undermine the implicit silliness of the insistent, self-important musical rhythm.
The slight, limber Sabado, who's been with Morris since 1984, is an amazing dancer, one who seems incapable of an inexpressive move, and one who invests every phrase with such specific passion for its character that it becomes hard to tear your gaze from him. But very similar things could be said of all the group; Sabado is but first (along with the inimitable Morris himself) among very near equals. And it's no small component of the company's appeal that these dancers not only impress one as substantial individuals, each of a distinct persona and movement profile, but also that they seem to live within the dance as a confraternity of soulmates.
"Canonic 3/4 Studies" is full of puns -- not sight gags, but true dance witticisms -- that poke fun at waltz conventions at the same time that they let you in on the public secret of Morris's promiscuous affection for waltzing. They are "canonic" -- in itself a bit of punning -- because they are so profligate with the dance device of so-called "canon" -- like the musical term from which it derives, it merely indicates successive imitation. But Morris is so canny about applying it in such a wealth of choreographic circumstances -- crawls, catches, bobbings of heads -- you're hardly aware of the compositional intricacies. And there are some unforgettable strokes -- the poker-faced man hefting two women who circle him in a rapid, abruptly shifting shuffle; the one, two and then three men who vainly try to save a woman from the precarious wobble she goes into after each of her turns.
"Pas de Poisson" -- also called "Pass duh Poison" by its maker -- is a miniature absurdist melodrama that takes its cue from the Erik Satie score, composed for the film entr'acte by Rene Clair, originally part of the 1924 Dadaist ballet, "Relache" (heard here in a two-piano reduction by Darius Milhaud). The two men and one woman of the cast appear to be playing some sort of competitive follow-the-leader, and an air of lugubrious suspicion haunts particularly the first man, who was Mikhail Baryshnikov in the work's Brooklyn premiere. Last night Jon Mensinger played it straight, which was okay, but not as effective as Baryshnikov's deadpan clowning in the role. The flamboyant Morris and Penny Hutchinson were dryly perfect as the pair who bedevil him.
Morris is the only choreographer I can think of who can be candidly sentimental without getting drippy about it, partly by balancing the sweetness off with equal dollops of earthy humour. He's also probably the only one who could use an image of cowpokes relieving themselves at the side of the road both as a humanizing element and an efficient formal device. All this is plainly demonstrated in "Going Away Party," set to eight songs -- including "Milk Cow Blues" and "Crippled Turkey" -- by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Morris here was the loner, odd-man out, using his bulk beautifully, as ever, to give his movement exceptional pliancy and pressure. Christine Van Loon's Western garb for the rest of the splendid cast -- Sabado, Mensinger, Clarice Marshall, Rachel Murray, Guillermo Resto, and Holly Williams -- had just the right cartoonish touch of cheekiness.
"Love Song Waltzes," to the first set of "Liebeslieder" Waltzes by Brahms -- Morris has choreographed both sets, and the other will be seen in tonight's companion program -- is a major work for 12 couples, lasting 25 minutes, whose innumerable felicities cannot easily be summarized here. Suffice it to say that this is the other side of the waltz than the one seen in "Canonic 3/4 Studies" -- it's a deeply affecting homage to loving relationships of every kind and size. Morris's method, here as elsewhere, is to find a visual-kinetic form answering to the deepest layer of the music, and then to amplify and inflect the impulse behind it in pure dance terms. Sometimes, as in much great work, the solution is outwardly simple but profound in impact, as in the unutterably poignant final moments when Sabado's walk to the wings suddenly slows, growing heavy with remembered sorrows and regrets.