I was worried that I had run out of things to say about Mark Morris. When you’ve seen one choreographer’s work multiple times and perhaps even the same piece more than once, it can be difficult to have a fresh perspective. Yes, one could comment over and over again about his musicality, genius casting and whimsical imagination but that’s a bit boring. Thankfully, San Francisco Ballet’s evening of Mark Morris brought to light something that I rarely notice in his work: an overwhelming sense of stability and security. This thread wove through A Garden, Joyride and Sandpaper Ballet embellishing the joy and fun of Morris’ ballets with a sense of calm, a feeling of safety and a gentle protective force.
The first offering, A Garden, was like watching a ballet class with its technical feats and dynamic physicality. But what I noticed most in the piece was the dancers’ continual return to 1st position while their palms reached towards the ground. This simple shape indicated the stability that comes from beginnings. In ballet, standing in 1st position is the absolute foundation. Morris developed very complicated and technical choreography throughout the ballet, which all culminated in the dancers returning to this moment of stillness in 1st position. Everything in dance comes from these opening positions. Dancers, teachers and choreographers tend to forget that their stability rests in where they began.
The middle piece, Joyride, was one of the new works commissioned last year for SF Ballet’s 75th anniversary season. This piece was ripe with numerous types of movement: robotic, angular, fluid, staccato, serpentine, all with a splattering of martial arts mixed in. It was a very interesting mixture of many different movement styles, but again, it was the recurring statuesque moment that is seared into my memory. For Joyride, the dancer stood with one foot pointed and crossed in front of the other, while one hand was gently placed on the hip. This very quiet and peaceful pose evolved out of incredibly difficult and sometimes wild movement sequences. Not only did this position provide a cadential break in the movement, but also it showed the absolute control and stability of the dancers. They could be moving at 100 miles per hour and then morph into a statue of calm in an instant.
The final piece of the evening, Sandpaper Ballet, is my favorite Morris work. It simply celebrates movement in space, while reminding us that dance is a community of individuals who work together to create art. Dance artists sometimes forget that. During Sandpaper Ballet, all of the dancers return to a squared matrix on the floor after each section; a most blatant moment of clarity. Morris’ ingenious concept for all the dancers to work together to create a formation on the stage illustrates the security and strength of that community. Each dancer returns to that square, whether they were in the preceding section or if they are to perform in the proceeding section. The ballet really becomes about the large collective, not small couplets or individuals. It is a community effort.
It isn’t very often that I leave the ballet comforted by what I’ve seen. But, these tranquil, yet very tangible moments that Mark Morris choose to inject into his work really created this safe feeling, a welcome surprise.