But authenticity in dancing is not only a historical issue. Watching Turocy’s Terpsicore explain the emotion of jealousy to Apollo by gesturing far outward–a terrible power running through her back, along her arm to her clenched fist, away from her source of strength and stability–I thought of the young modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, who has managed to achieve a vivid communication with Baroque music in a language apparently foreign to the period. In his setting of a Handel aria on jealousy, for instance, Morris has the dancer double over, pitching his body off-center, then melt to the floor in a sideways roll, like a slow, broken barrel dislocated by the wind. As he revolves, his eyes gape at his raggedly stirring extremities. It’s the same message: jealousy decenters you.
Last fall, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, Morris presented his dancers in an all-Baroque program: Marble Halls (Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor), Pieces en Concert (Couperin airs) and Stabat Mater Pergolesi). It was a gamble. The program was painstakingly varied in tone and scale, but kept within a narrow philosophy of dance-making: music, and specifically musical rhythm, drove on the visual elements. Still, it would have been easy to miss the mosaic of conceits on manners and gesture in dancing in the Couperin piece, as winsome as a portrait by Watteau, because the brilliant jokes were sometimes embodied in a clownish guise and because the saddest moments popped out from the most bumptious steps. The Stabat Mater, muted and flattened like a grisaille copy of a cenotaph frieze, was so unassertive and patient in the development of lyric tension that even a Morris admirer like me couldn’t get the drift of it after one performance; only the second time around did I see the implicit equation between massed, architectural elements in the choreography and the metaphor of suffering masses so reminiscent of Doris Humphrey, one of the modern dance pioneers whose work Morris admires.
If, however, you can hear Bach and Couperin–or, as Morris has used them elsewhere, Yoko Ono and the Violent Femmes–without preconception, his dances make wonderful sense. He seems to respond to the heft of a melody as if it could be held. His imagination is curiously submissive, and the emotions that he excavates from music, sometimes deeply confessional, can be disturbing. In Baroque music, he finds a personal, wounding power.
The New York Baroque Dance Company will perform on June 8 and 9 at the Boston Early Music Festival and on July 19 and 23 in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. The Mark Morris Dance Group will perform a program of works on Roland Barthes themes (Mythologies) from May 6 to 10 in New York City at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom. They will also appear May 14 through 16 at the Kennedy Center in Washington and May 19 and 20 at the Virginia Museum in Richmond.