Fab or Flab?

New York

Left: Performance view of “Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight.” (Photo: Stephanie Berger) Right: Mario Batali and Mark Morris. (Photo Alan Kline)

Although it’s been a few years since I last saw Mark Morris, I felt reasonably sure what to expect from the opening night of his five-day engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Morris’s rich choreography, astonishing musical sensitivity, ever-expanding vocabulary of sexual entendres, roving eye for other cultures, and performative bravado have all remained constant since the very beginning of his career—even if the fizziness of his work seems to have flattened somewhat. It’s hard to say if this mellowing-out is due to the fact that Morris has (a) won his very own private culture war to return music to its place as the foundation of dance or (b) ensconced himself in his very own five-story MMDG edifice, along with an orchestra and administrative staff, effectively re-creating the state-subsidized environment he enjoyed during his stint as resident choreographer at Brussels’ Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in the mid-80s.

However, speaking from personal experience, I can say that the older you get, the harder it is to be a provocateur, especially when the world loves you as much as it does Morris. And by the world I don’t just mean le tout New York: Morris’s admirers these days include Altria and Target—underwriters of the evening’s after-performance gala—as well as the expected members of the BAM community, of which Morris is now an integral part, and luminaries like Annie Liebovitz, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Isaac Mizrahi, and Mario Batali (all of whom were milling around this night). It’s one thing for a rebel to have fans, quite another to be a pillar of society, a burgher, who must (in return for the loans and support that led to his paradisical eight-million-dollar dance center-cum-neighborhood playroom) serve the community.

Not that Morris doesn’t try anymore. Take the opener, “From Old Seville,” a fab flamenco duet for Morris and Lauren Grant, with Morris leering all the while at a Rioja-slinging bartender (John Heginbotham). This quick, castinet-clanging mènage a trois (originally choreographed in 2001) is a classic Morris bonbon: Seven minutes of clever choreography, total (but not slavish) fidelity to the music, charisma verging on showboating, and the fierce undertow—sexual, emotional—that’s always lurking in his work.

But the astonishing “Somebody’s Coming To See Me Tonight,” which premiered in 1995, was what I really wanted to see: one of the rare dances that can still send me into orbit. Set to nine Stephen Foster songs often identified with the antebellum South (e.g., “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Come Where My Love Lies Sleeping”) but actually intended by Foster as subtle antislavery propaganda, this unhurried work brilliantly shows how Morris can work in any genre and come up with truly musical dances. Morris’s technical mastery of music is truly second to none (okay, second to Balanchine, but who’s counting?).

But then comes “Silhouettes,” a 1993 duet (here performed by Lauren Grant and Julie Worden) that feels like a warmed-over college performance of ersatz moden dance. “Rock of Ages,” the only new piece on the program, was another disappointment: For me, at least, the piece never got beyond a pretty picture of the music (Schubert’s Adagio in E flat). It’s my guess that for a certain sector of the dance world (namely, tight-assed critics), stuff like this is the second coming of Mr. B. But that’s not what I want from Morris.

Left: MMDG dancer Marjorie Folkman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Isaac Mizrahi and Lisa Reinhart. Right: MMDG building. (Photos: Alan Kline)

What I want is more like the next number, a challenging older work called “Rhymes with Silver.” First performed in 1997 with a commissioned Lou Harrison score and a blowup scrim of vivid Christmas green and red Howard Hodgkin brushstrokes, the piece is a truly subversive dance opera, with the choreography encompassing everything from Laura Dean spinning to kooky kabuki, Martha Graham and Greek line-dancing, and a dionysiac Morris stand-in. This, fittingly, was the finale. And when it was over, Morris, dressed in a gorgeous cream shalwar kameez, took his bows, radiant and happy.

He has every right to be. As we ran across the street to his sleek building (and I mean ran: Word that Batali had catered the gala was on everyone’s lips and it was going on 11 PM) it somehow felt OK that Morris has been promoted from revolutionary to establishment icon. Upstairs in the sleek studio (said to be the largest uncolumned dance space in New York), the Dred Scott Trio played on a round stage in the middle of the room and the chatter was all about Batali’s roast pig. Joe Melillo, BAM’s executive director, and his former boss, Harvey Lichtenstein (BAM’s emeritus CEO and Morris’s most vocal advocate), beamed as if in heaven.

Still, I felt a little deflated. I don’t know why it bothers me that Morris no longer gets standing O’s for being dance’s bad boy. It’s not such a bad thing to be the guy who bridges the gap between Balanchine and the drama queens who love Morris’s opera buffa. At least Morris hasn’t started to take himself too seriously—unlike Mizrahi, who was holding court with dance critic Celia Ipiotis and Graham imitator Richard Move at a corner table. When I asked Mizrahi how he liked the show—wasn’t it a bit trop longue, I wondered—he glowered. (“I loved it.”) Maybe he just didn’t want anyone to get between him and the pasta. After all, if you’re going to heaven, you might as well do it eating Batali’s gnudi.