Wearing big blue wings on his back and a flowing sleeveless tunic like one of the angels from Botticelli's "Mystic Nativity," Mark Morris played Cupid at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Thursday, drawing Ruth Davidson and Guillermo Resto together in "A Spell" with an arsenal of antic gesture and a series of antique skipping-steps very much in the manner of Isadora Duncan.
As you may recall, Duncan also had a taste for flowing sleeveless tunics--wingless, in her case--and, like Morris, made her reputation as a free-spirited artist-celebrity who choreographed music widely considered unsuitable for dancing. It's an index of our cultural conservatism that, nearly a century later, we ask no more of Morris than that he fill Duncan's tunics by giving us periodic examples of outrageousness such as his Cupid act, plus all the eclectic music visualizations on view Thursday.
Three of the four pieces performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group were set to vocal music--once a company specialty but now yielding predictable paint-by-the-numbers exercises. Whether patching together a lusty mini-drama from John Wilson's setting of Renaissance song-texts (including two by Shakespeare) in "A Spell" or manufacturing a suite of social dances in exaggerated corn-pone style to recordings by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in "Going Away Party," the Morris Method proved identical: literal word-painting. When somebody sang about a breast, a dancer grabbed one. When somebody sang about a table, a dancer pretended to be furniture. By choosing songs packed with visual images, Morris had his clever, clever, clever pileup of fleet, specific mime all laid out for him and his future assured as a maker of entertaining, rubber-stamp divertissements.
But remember, for a moment, Paul Taylor's "Company B," which also had plenty of fun with song-lyrics and with the sex drives of the society being portrayed, but still managed to take the audience into much deeper, darker terrain. Why settle for "A Spell" or "Going Away Party" after that?
Because he chose Italian-language madrigals by Monteverdi, Morris couldn't rely completely on word-painting to put over "I Don't Want to Love," and so responded more creatively to the music. Sometimes he made his dancers fly toward the footlights like a whole flock of Petipa bluebirds, all the while developing an intriguing pattern that pitted individuals against the ensemble--or, in the finale, found the outsider piercing group formations.
As in the texts, the choreography explored the pain of love but the group activity added a watchful and sometimes hostile social context, with, for example, the statuesque Mireille Radwan-Dana drooping and pining while encircled and sometimes mirrored by three others or, in another section, the stoic Joe Bowie being rudely mocked by the gestures of another threesome.
With no text and sometimes no real dance impetus either, the Lou Harrison violin and piano duet accompanying "Grand Duo" challenged Morris as a maker of steps, rhythms and images like nothing else on the program.
Generating tremendous dynamism by having the 14-member cast remain in place while swiveling, jabbing at the air and shadow boxing in unison, the four-part piece also introduced approximations of folk steps, evocations of archaic posture, mysterious suggestions (fragments, really) of relationships and even narrative, plus two key motifs: an upturned arm with clenched fist and a pointing finger reaching ever upward as if to touch something dangerous but irresistible.
Consider "Grand Duo" as Morris' "Rite of Spring": uneven, unresolved and out of character for the drag-Isadora of contemporary modernism, perhaps, but ultimately more persuasive as a proof of artistry than any stupid Cupid caprice--with Morris' hard-working company, for once, looking absolutely faultless.
Live music gave most of the program added luster, with violinist Matthew Pierce and pianist Ethan Iverson exemplary in both the Harrison and Wilson pieces, soprano Eileen Clark Reisner sounding far more comfortable with Wilson than Monteverdi, but the Artek Singers (Philip Anderson, Michael Brown and Paul Shipper) making the madrigals magical. Further enhancing "I Don't Want to Love": the 458 Strings (Shipper, Gwendolyn Toth and Daniel Swenberg). Besides the dancers previously named, Julie Worden, Shawn Gannon, June Omura and Dan Joyce all excelled in prominent assignments.
* The Mark Morris Dance Group performs the same program tonight at 8 in the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $30-$38. (714) 854-4646.