In this moment of intense human suffering, I find that my reaction to art and beauty is complicated by conflicting emotions. The need for beauty and connection is strong, but so is the mental refusal of anything that rings false or comes across as too easy. When human frailty is so glaringly present, art that reflects that frailty becomes all the more precious.
It is striking to see to what extent the Mark Morris Dance Group reflects this simple truth about the human body and spirit, without over-dramatizing or sentimentality. The company just wrapped up a weekend of performances at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota, Florida, where they appeared as guests of the Sarasota Ballet. On the program was one of Morris’s first major works, his 1981 “Gloria,” set to Vivaldi’s choral work of the same name. To the sound of the opening “Gloria!,” sung with exuberance in a recording by the Academy of Ancient Music, Morris introduces two dancers. One crawls, like a worm, on his belly; the other walks stiffly, painfully, forward. The image is quick, and is followed by darkness. It leaves you feeling slightly shaken.
The whole piece is like that. Dancers slither, advance with difficulty, fall, or clutch themselves as if expressing a deep need. But then they glide and run and walk, or dive, sliding across the stage as if on a luge. In the “Domine Deus” section, most of the ensemble traces sinuous patterns around the space. The dancers can’t help but smile at each other as they meet; the section is evidently a pleasure to dance, as it is to watch. But Morris places a small group in their midst, two figures leading a woman who cannot walk without their assistance. In the end, they let her fall to the ground.
Morris has made bigger works and more sophisticated ones in the years since 1981, but in “Gloria” we see the kernel of his art: The gestural musicality, in which a simple, casual movements capture the turn of a phrase, a sound, a rhythm. The simplicity of effect, the use of repetition. And the lack of prettiness or decoration in the execution of the choreography by Morris’s dancers. They perform each movement full out, using their entire bodies, down to the tips of their fingers and toes, but they don’t add flourishes or personal touches. Both the choreography and the dancers are honest. This is who we are, they seem to say—not just us, but you too.
The only pity is that “Gloria” had to be performed to recorded music—something Morris hardly ever does. Touring during the Covid era, to smaller theaters like this one, makes certain decisions necessary. The other two works on the program, “Words” and “Jenn and Spencer,” however, had live accompaniment, provided by the excellent violin-piano duo of Georgy Valtchev and Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. In these works, the relation between sound, rhythm, and movement was even more electric, particularly in this small space.
“Words,” which dates from 2014, is a much simpler work than “Gloria,” even though it contains many of the same elements. Musical-gestural ideas take you off guard, like a skipping step punctuated by a stumble that perfectly matches the end of a phrase in the Mendelssohn piece (one of the Songs Without Words) to which it is set. Motifs, like a spinning, and dangling arms, that return again and again. But there is a touch of ugliness and terror here as well, as two dancers scratch and tear at their faces, hands held like claws. To bring the dancers on and off, Morris uses a device learned from classical Indian dance-drama, in which characters are hidden behind a square of fabric, and then revealed. The fact that we see their feet beneath the fabric is a funny touch, a breach of theatrical artifice.
More dramatic, “Jenn and Spencer,” from 2013, is like a Bergman film reduced to a single scene. A man (the elegant Brandon Randolph) and woman (strong, unforgiving Karlie Budge) are locked in a kind of war. Both are dressed formally, as if they had just returned from a party. But their outward decorum conceals a loathing and violence that are sometimes difficult to watch. They hold up one hand, as if preparing to strike, to the dissonant chords of Henry Cowell’s Suite for violin and Piano. She rages, overpowering him physically as he slithers beneath her. But when she falls, he does not help her. She just lies there, writhing, as if in a nightmare. There is a scintilla of desire between them, but it is clear, this is the end of the affair.
It is an anomalous piece for Morris, who tends to avoid extended narratives of male-female love, and duets in general. Who knows what inspired him to make this one. But it is clear what he thinks of human nature and its inherent violence and vulnerability. There is nothing pretty about it.