It would take a Mark Morris to top Mark Morris, and that's just what the precocious choreographer did, as his troupe -- the Monnaie Dance Group/Mark Morris -- trotted out a second program at the Eisenhower Theater last night even more overwhelming than Tuesday night's superb opener.
Morris himself wasn't on hand, either to perform or to take bows with his ensemble, because he was temporarily in Boston for the launching of the White Oak Dance Project, which had a benefit preview there last night. White Oak is the touring company Mikhail Baryshnikov has assembled, an elite cadre of dancers culled from some of the nation's leading ballet and modern dance troupes. The Morris connection is that, at Baryshnikov's request, the inaugural White Oak program consists entirely of dances by Morris, a compliment as high and apt as it is self-explanatory.
At the Kennedy Center, Morris's presence nonetheless registered strongly throughout the evening. The troupe's first program, for all its brilliance and pith, was tilted toward the lighthearted side -- not lightweight, mind you, but abounding in wry humor. Last night's fare, though not without its smiling asides and mirthful ploys, comprised three hefty works, each about 30 minutes in duration, give or take a bit, and each masterly, complex and powerful in immediate impact.
As a whole, the selection provided yet another demonstration of Morris's remarkably multifaceted imagination -- the piercingly emotional "New Love Song Waltzes," to music by Brahms; "Behemoth," a dazzlingly suspenseful, enigmatic abstraction danced in silence; and "Gloria," to Vivaldi, a work of surpassing spiritual majesty.
Of Brahms's two sets of "Liebeslieder Waltzes," Morris choreographed the later "New Love Song Waltzes" first, in 1982. Last year, in Brussels, he added Brahms's earlier companion set, under the title "Love Song Waltzes," seen here on Tuesday night's program. The "New" set calls for five men and five women. It's no mere suite of pas de deux, as one might expect; neither is the "Love Song Waltzes," but the latter contains a lot more conventional waltzing, especially couple waltzing, than its predecessor.
In other words, the "New Love Song Waltzes" are less patently illustrative in design, more oblique in reference. Nevertheless, the subject remains love and loving. What happens is that Morris goes directly to the music, and creates kinesthetic analogues that capture its emotional essence, instead of showing us dramatic pictures or stories. The music's rise and fall, swing and swoop, crisis and resolution, tell us all we need to know about the eddying course of loving feelings -- Morris makes those undulations visible in his dancers' bodies and their spatial harmonizations. He characteristically uses reaching arms, for instance, as an emblem of romantic longing. There are, of course, also passages of concretely dramatic imagery, exceptions proving the rule. In one such, dancers roll languidly on the floor, over and atop one another in a restless shifting of partners and gender matchings. It's part of Morris's genius to know how to do this and make the sight wrenchingly tender, without the faintest trace of coarseness. The entire set of dances has a fluidity of invention and sustained intensity that place it, along with its companion set, among Morris's finest works.
"Behemoth," created in Brussels earlier this year, is another rule-proving exception, the rule being that Morris always takes his inspiration from music. Asked recently about the apparent paradox, Morris said at the time he couldn't find any music to suit his purpose, but that "Behemoth," in its own way, is still "dealing with music." Most dances in silence have a way of creating their own soundless music; in Morris's case, the movement seems innately ordered by musical syntax. If one doesn't exactly "hear" the music of "Behemoth," one reacts viscerally to its implicit discord, tension and dynamism.
It's hard to know how much stock to put in the title. One dictionary defines "behemoth" (derived from a Hebrew word meaning "beast") as "something of oppressive or monstrous size or power." Nothing in Morris's choreography hints unambiguously at what that something might be, in this case. There are suggestions of a dance class in the work, class as an arduous ritual or trial, exhaustive and exhausting, and also primal, like something one might have seen at Stonehenge when the Druids were going about their business. The work also treats its movement materials in the fashion of a deconstruction of dance grammar, reducing whole passages to modular components and recombining them in unpredictable ways. In its opposition of groups and individuals, it's also a study in asymmetrical -- and asynchronous -- design. Gripping, disquieting, fascinating, it proves that Morris's relation to music isn't one of dependency; this choreography stands solidly on its own unaided feet. A word of praise, too, for Christine Van Loon's sparely designed togs in greens, yellows and black, that splendidly contrast the bluntness of anatomical shape with the lucent patina of exposed flesh.
As for "Gloria," seen once before at the Kennedy Center in 1987, it is quite simply a masterwork, belonging properly alongside the era's other classics and surpassed in Morris's output only by his recent "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," created in 1988 in Brussels. "Gloria" puts dance simultaneously in the service of both Vivaldi's inspired choral polyphony and the work's exalted ecclesiastical text, a hymn of praise for which Morris finds such apposite choreographic lineaments that the resulting movement elicits invariably ecstatic response from an audience. Last night was no exception, as the hall cheered, applauded and bravoed thunderingly at program's end.