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Punch & Judy Do Ballet

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WHITE OAK DANCE PROJECT

at Arie Crown Theatre

November 19

Mark Morris is a scamp. He's also smart and talented. Five years ago Chicagoans could have seen him and his Seattle-based company at MoMing for less than $10. Today his company is in residence in Brussels, Belgium, and his choreography is being performed in this country by the company Mikhail Baryshnikov formed last summer, the White Oak Dance Project. You could have seen their recent performance at Arie Crown for anywhere between $37.50 and $75--or $175 to $225 if you wanted to attend the benefit party afterward. Meanwhile MoMing, one of the party's intended beneficiaries (the other was the Auditorium Theatre), has announced that it's shutting down, after 16 years of extraordinary service.

We saw a motley crew of brilliant dancers drawn from the ranks of some of the country's top ballet and modern-dance companies perform four works by a smart, talented man. So, yes, it was a good concert. But the steep ticket prices and the fact that the benefit could not keep MoMing alive had to color the whole experience. It seemed there must be some message here for the future of dance--will it survive, and how? Will some mix of ballet (a traditional money maker) and modern (a traditional innovator) offer a means?

Certainly anyone who came expecting to see the old Misha dancing the old way must have been sorely disappointed. Morris is a modern-dance choreographer, and pyrotechnics are not the point. Neither is an attenuated, precise, codified technique. Morris, who seems driven as much by mockery of himself and others as by his love of dance, demands almost the opposite, an ability to flop and jiggle and cut loose. Yet his dances are profoundly and almost exclusively musical, and therefore abstract; watching them is a little like watching Punch and Judy perform Balanchine.

Morris's clown face leered throughout the opening work on this program, Going Away Party. The eight songs by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys are country-western at its best, music that lopes and swings, with a rhythmic line that despite little hiccups of invention is as steady and sure as a pendulum. Far from avoiding country-western cliches, Morris meets them head-on and gleefully, though it's not obvious whether he intends satire or celebration. In the opening, "Playboy Theme," the seven dancers salute us with kissed fingertips and stiff-armed waves of the hand of the sort local queens give from floats. Later we see couples who crouch and lean toward each other, as if for an arm's-length kiss, swinging their arms in synchronized opposition.

And this dance is rude! None of your ballet niceties for Morris. One section opens with a guy apparently taking a leak; the raunchiest section, "Baby, That Sure Would Go Good," features simulated intercourse and cunnilingus. This dance and the one following, "Milk Cow Blues," with their skirmishes between the sexes, are at the center of Going Away Party, whose forlorn central character (Baryshnikov here, Morris in the original) is never quite in on the boy-girl spats and cuddlings.

Even the postures in Going Away Party are radical, not dancers' postures at all. Clearly someone had told these people to round their shoulders, cave in their chests, and thrust their pelvises forward in a trademark country-western slouch--though the effect was subtle, the cliche never overdone. The women more than the men brought their own qualities to this uncharacteristic look: Nancy Colahan, blond ponytail swinging, had the bounciest, most elastic C shape; Denise Pons, a ballet dancer, flounced truculently, torso thrust up despite her curved shoulders; and Kate Johnson was the pert good girl, the alert and preternaturally upright nerd. All of the men except Baryshnikov--Rob Besserer, Jamie Bishton, and David Parsons--are modern dancers and looked fine; but Baryshnikov couldn't bring off the country-western insouciance. I've seen him witty and casual, but he doesn't carry his weight low enough to make a thrust pelvis and bent knees look natural. And who put creases in his blue jeans?

Baryshnikov was terrific in Ten Suggestions, however, a pared and polished solo for a dancer in silky pink pajamas. Other writers have complained that because Baryshnikov isn't as big as Morris he can't give the dance the same ironic contrast between physical bulk and dainty choreography. Perhaps because I haven't seen Morris do it I'm inclined to say, so what? It may be a different dance, but it's still funny and it's still fine. In fact, with his clean lines, Baryshnikov may make the dance's relationship to the music more apparent than Morris ever could have.

That relationship is delicate and inventive. The piano music--Bagatelles op. 5 by Alexander Tcherepnin, nicely played by Linda Dowdell--is by turn pounding, smooth, and soft; a kid's dreamy doodling, just as the dancing is. The music picks up a phrase, repeats it, varies it, and drops it unaccountably; the movements too are repeated, varied, and careen off in other directions. When the music rolls up and down, the dancer lies on his back and rolls his outstretched arms and legs in the air. A kick accompanies a sudden emphatic note--but looks different when the note is in the soprano instead of the bass range. Morris plays around, making the music and the dancing start and stop at different times, most cleverly when the dancer stops dead in his tracks and his hat flies off his head and lands miraculously on the bagatelle's ending note.

Ten Suggestions is also studded with dance jokes. A phrase in the first section starts with a somersault, from which the dancer rolls up to a curved position and extends one leg to the front, to the side, and to the back--ballet's tendu en croix but distorted almost beyond recognition, with the legs in parallel, the foot flexed, and the torso hunched over. It's something a dancer might find himself doing in a weird dream. A section with a hoop and another with a ribbon recall modern-dance pioneers. When Morris did them, it's said, these pieces recalled them viciously and hilariously, but Baryshnikov carrying the hoop is clean and lyrical, his arms anchoring it over his head like the fragile crescent of the new moon--not at all funny. When he takes up the long, slender ribbon, however, and throws it with all his might and it stops and dribbles insipidly in midair, he's definitely turned a joke against himself, if not against anyone else.

Pas de Poisson, as its title announces, also involves a joke. Some ballet steps are named after the movements of animals--the pas de chat, the pas de cheval. But what would the step of a fish be? Only Mark Morris would even think of such a thing. Occasionally the dancers' flat hands at the ends of stiff arms seem to swim, or a flicked foot resembles a fin--and at one point all three dancers (Peggy Baker, Bishton, and Johnson) madly fling rubber fish out of a basket. There's also an off-the-wall allusion to Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun, which it now strikes me has something of an underwater atmosphere. But otherwise there's little of the fishy about Pas de Poisson, performed to music by Erik Satie that, like the dance, ends abruptly and almost anticlimactically--like other Morris endings, it's so unassuming that self-mockery seems the intention.

Motorcade is a work for eight dancers performed to Camille Saint-Saens' wonderful Septet op. 65. The music at first seems to roll out in ever expanding circles, and a waiting line resists it for only a short time before the dancers start peeling off from the middle of the line, as rhythmically and precisely as cars in a motorcade. This is a dance without obvious jokes, though occasionally the arms adopt pseudoclassical, melodramatic poses, as if the dancers were balancing huge urns on their shoulders. Like all the other works on this program, its drama and impetus come from the music, which seems to dictate emphatic or quiet moments but not the forms they take. Morris's somewhat limited vocabulary never palls--and it may be that it's intentionally limited. A fussy, busy dance isn't his style.

But though the performances in Motorcade were vital, they were somewhat unsatisfying. True, it was the last dance on the last evening of a long tour: 17 cities over a period of about three weeks. Still, the dancers sometimes looked mismatched, like a huge team of horses pulling unevenly because they're not used to pulling together.

These performers are all highly developed artists, but their art has come to fruition in different companies with different styles. Here and there throughout this concert they didn't have the look of an ensemble (and I wonder if such mature artists ever could). Part of the problem may be the mix of ballet and modern training among the White Oak dancers. It's not as if the two techniques are necessarily incompatible--Twyla Tharp takes her ballet-trained dancers and drills them in her style--but wedding them takes work, perhaps more work than the White Oak Dance Project had time to put into these performances.

So why were people being charged up to $75 apiece to see them? And will dancegoers continue to pay such outrageous prices for ironic and sometimes crude-looking dance? Is the White Oak Dance Project bringing the message of modern dance to the general public in the only way it can be brought, with the lure of movie stars and the cachet of high prices? Or does this augur the end of modern dance as we've known it, now priced for the elite and perhaps ultimately priced out of existence? Unfortunately, because of lapses in government funding, these high tickets may be the only way for dance companies and dance presenters to stay in the black. But it'll be a strange situation if, to preserve themselves, they end up killing themselves off.

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