Mark Morris Returns to On the Boards, with a Baryshnikov in A Wooden Tree
Mark Morris’s return to On the Boards in Seattle–”he premiered one of his earliest works as part of OtB’s inaugural season,” informs the OtB website–sold out in advance of its three-night run, which means that 900 dance fans already had tickets when they learned they’d be seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in a world premiere that night, too. (In 1990, Morris and Baryshnikov founded the White Oak Dance Project, creating a sort of Traveling Wilburys of dance.)
Between 1981 and 1985, a younger Morris had 13 of his works premiere at OtB. In his program for Back On the Boards, Morris ignores the prospect of competition with himself, though he has perhaps a bone to pick with Time. “The Muir” and “A Wooden Tree” are set in times gone by, and while quirkily comedic in places, are shot through with people and things falling away.
He has not given Baryshnikov, at 64, anything superhuman to do in “A Wooden Tree,” except dance with youngsters, costumed in British music-hall togs (by Elizabeth Kurtzman, lighting by Michael Chybowski). Baryshnikov’s sad-eyed certainty as he moves to the eccentric songs of Ivor Cutler (about lonely Morse code from the top of the world, the uselessness of inter-sexual relations, and having tea, among other things) is the inverse of a haunting.
It’s difficult to do justice to Cutler’s phrasings, so listen to “A Wooden Tree” for yourself. Morris is almost an illustrator here for Cutler’s lyrics: the dancers act out the family so appreciative of the wooden tree; in “Little Black Buzzer,” Baryshnikov dits and dahs with his fingers at an imaginary telegraph. It’s mostly screwball fun until the back-to-back “I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean” and “Beautiful Cosmos,” which both have to do with the limits of human communion and are, with no grand gestures, wrenching–because Baryshnikov has done one superhuman thing after all, which is to get you to feel you’re him, à la Chaplin.
“The Muir” also features idiosyncratic songs; nine folk songs arranged by one Beethoven, sung here by mezzo Linda Tsatsanis and tenor Wesley Rogers, accompanied by Joanna Frankel on violin, Andrew Janss on cello, and Colin Fowler on piano. Dallas McMurray, Billy Smith, and Noah Vinson are in gray blouses and black pants, while the women (Amber Star Merkens, Laurel Lynch, and Michelle Yard) are almost gowned (again, Kurtzman). You see Morris enjoying Beethoven’s sprightly rhythms, while reveling as well in the lowdown brio of a servant’s song called “Sally in our alley“–the dancers’ deportment shifts from high to low and back again as if the troupe is a growl-to-purr Jaguar that Morris is taking for a spin through the folk countryside.
“Petrichor” (set to String Quartet No. 2, Op. 56, by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos) is more purely the Morris who hears music dance: you see the women dancers barely enter the stage and then dance off, because that’s how long their passage lasted. The work is marred slightly by Morris settling for too literal of an instrumental expression (a jabbing pulse in the dancers’ arms as the strings repeat, a vibrating arm to a jagged figure)–I’m not against literality, I feel he is, so it jars.
Where Morris gave almost every note in Beethoven its place, with Villa-Lobos he allows more air in–the succession of movements can bend toward or away from the music before ending in time. It’s a joy, then, to sit back and watch Lauren Grant, Amber Star Merkens, and Maile Okamura bring their personal expressions to Morris’s choreography. Grant’s intensity can make the ensemble seem to swirl around her no matter where she is on stage; Okamura seems silken, as if she’s gently moving air molecules aside; Merkens, as if she’s a quantum-leaping Jane Austen, narrating, Reader, the way an astonishing dance by Mr. Morris is done, with asides where her eyes light briefly on a partner.
1993′s “Grand Duo” takes Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin & Piano ( again, Frankel and Fowler, making a grand duo themselves) as its subject, Susan Ruddle’s costumes suggesting something more primitive and loincloth-y for the men, while the women dress it up. Domingo Estrada, Jr., is a lithe powerhouse, though the work is less concerned with solos than with configurations. Extended arms parallel the floor, tilt, form angles with other trios. There’s hand-in-handing, arm-in-arming, an upbeat circling, the footfalls just firm enough to convey the impact of solid flesh. Grant skitters to find her place between towering adjacent dancers. I sometimes feel Morris’s anthropologically tinged portraits of groups, with their hints of ritual and daily activity, public and private social interactions, are trying to tell us something about anthropology–about the assumption that the merry or miserable band being observed isn’t you, the particular observer. An assumption that collapses when the audience (everyone who wants to be in that happy circle) erupts as one in applause at the end.