“Serenade,” “The ‘Tamil Film Songs in Stereo’ Pas de Deux,”
“O Rangasayee,” “Pure Dance Items”
Mark Morris Dance Group
Lincoln Center White Light Festival
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
New York, NY
November 5, 2016
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2016 by Martha Sherman
Mark Morris’s love of Indian dance and music isn’t just a passing fad. In “Sounds of India,” his curated series for Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, the broad sweep of his interests were offered for two weeks, then came to rest in his own work, with four Morris pieces influenced by India’s exotic sound and movement. Two of the works were created and first seen in the 1980s; two were made decades later – including the standout of the evening, “Pure Dance Items,” which had its world premiere at this series. The new works were more inflected by than immersed in Indian dance and music vocabulary, and both were, by far, the stronger pieces in the program. The early works, though, offered a quirky and illuminating lens into this important influence in Morris’s choreography.
Stacy Martorana, Domingo Estrada, Jr,. Billy Smith in “Pure Dance Items” Photo © Stephanie Berger.
The group broke into shifting duets, but were never alone for long, as the dancers were drawn back to frame each other, echoing each other’s movements in canons of dance. In one scene, trios of dancers melted together: one long body along the floor, a second leaning angled against the first, and the third, the sharpest angle, with the three making a human fan, halfway opened against the plane of the floor. The shape, the colors, the fluidity were beautiful Morris craftsmanship, flavored with the exotic.
In “Serenade” (2003), the luscious five-part opening solo of the evening, danced by Lesley Garrison, Morris did his most evenly balanced weave between the different movement traditions, shifting from crisply pointed toes to flat angled footwork, between graceful port-de-bras arms and splayed Indian fingers. The live music, Lou Harrison’s “Serenade for Guitar,” was played onstage on guitar (Robert Belinic) and percussion (Stefan Schatz.) The score was a perfect foil, elevating the movement.
Garrison opened her solo squatting on the wooden stool; the dance was all upper body stretches and twists. When she was freed to use her whole body, it was joyous but controlled, including leaps, swirls, and – in very Morris-like moments -- jiggling hips with a little jog like a sweet movement joke, a stamp of his authorship. Garrison used several props – the stool in the first movement, then a fan that she snapped open and closed, finally finger cymbals which she touched as she danced, that tingling Indian percussion. The props and the musicians were subtle partners to the dancer, just as they are in classical Indian solos.
Morris has always created idiosyncratic mannerisms, including scattered pedestrian movements that purposefully interrupt elegance and classicism to grab attention. The movement phrases he has adapted from the Indian tradition are a reversal of that pattern – the attention grabbers are the most classical of movements: splayed fingers, flattened feet, knees angled sideways, bobbling head. In the opening and closing works, the interchange was understated, woven in a cultural and physical interchange.
The two pieces in the center of the program were choreographed in the 1980s, and were much heavier-handed. In the current era of sensitivity to cultural appropriation, it’s not fair to hold them to current standards, but they came close to crossing a worrisome line, not just in political correctness, but loitering near the squeamish place where black-face used to live.
These two dances were accompanied by taped Indian music, one a simpering Bollywood coo, the other a long, repetitive classical work “O Rangasayee,” by the 18th century South Indian Carnatic composer, Tyagaraja. First, “‘Tamil Film Songs in Stereo’ Pas de Deux” was a small comedic duet from 1983, a sexist romp between a stern teacher (Brian Lawson) and a simpering ballet student (Stacy Martorana.) They skittered around the stage with exaggerated Indian-flavored hand gestures and head bobs, attached to a ballet lesson of her improving jumps, turns, and balances. It was a negligible piece, well-danced and awkwardly dated.
“O Rangasayee” was more substantive, a solo danced by the powerful Dallas McMurray. Starting in a low crouch, like an anthropomorphic frog with brilliantly red-painted feet and nails, he unfurled with flat, angled knees and arms upraised, elbows also angled, and fingers splayed. He stood on one foot, the other stretched out with the heel twisted and angled out like the sculpture of a Hindu god. In an increasingly athletic dance, everything was exaggerated. It was as if Morris wanted McMurray to out-Indian the Indians.
As Morris proved in “Serenade” and “Pure Dance Items,” white dancers can, of course, move in ways that reflect and refract Indian tradition beautifully. In his Indian alms-beggar’s costume of the white breechcloth, though, McMurray looked like a white man in an adult diaper, not an ascetic from Indian legend. Maybe it worked in 1984, but, despite the athletic and accomplished movement, neither the look nor the choreography transcended boundaries effectively in 2016.
The long-term influence of Indian movement, music, and sensibilities reached deeply and subtly into Morris’s more recent choreography. In comparison with the older works, it was clear how much Morris has learned over the decades, growing into his own vocabulary and absorbing more sophisticated lessons of Indian dance and music. Especially in the newest work, Morris honored that tradition in a rich way, allowing it to catalyze his own artistry.
All Photos © Stephanie Berger
First: Mark Morris Dance Group cast in “Pure Dance Items.”
Second: Lesley Garrison in “Serenade.”
Third: Brian Lawson and Stacy Martorana in “ ‘Tamil Film Songs in Stereo’ Pas de Deux.”
Fourth: Dallas McMurray in ““O Rangasayee.”
copyright © 2016 by Martha Sherman