'Looky' is a playful premiere from Mark Morris
Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
That Mark Morris's dances spring structurally from the music is old -- though perpetually invigorating -- news. What Tuesday night's world premiere, the kookily titled "Looky," brought home with a thwack was the degree to which the music begets the themes as well.
Indeed, with composer Kyle Gann's hyperkinetic "Studies for Disklavier" as springboard, how could the results be otherwise? Prominently displayed onstage at the ICA is the disklavier itself, a player piano that uses a digital interface rather than a roll. Displaying rhythmic complexities beyond the reach of mortals, the instrument klinks and dings and fairly dances its way through pieces titled "Tango da Chiesa," "Despotic Waltz," and "Texarkana." Meanwhile, 18 dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group gather in a large square of light or investigate the center of a small one, alternately pointing at the ceiling, conversing, and looking (hence the title) straight at us.
Like many of Morris's older dances, such as "Mythologies" (1986) and "Ten Suggestions" (1981), "Looky" is at once an homage to classical and early modern dance forms and a comment on them. At one point, Joe Bowie slumps, belly first, over the piano bench, scribbling madly on his palm. When some dancers sit on tilted chairs in facing lines, the entire stage space seems to lean; then others bourrée prettily between them, extending the linear motif while also spoofing the arrangement. Two dancers stand with curved arms, impersonating a swinging saloon door; Elisa Clark struts through, all macho-man (OK, so she's wearing a midriff-revealing top), and disrupts a roomful of cardsharps who soon devolve into a brawl. Meanwhile, Lauren Grant drunkenly tosses her cookies.
There's hysterical laughter right beneath the surface of this scene, as Morris's dancers become not just the polyphonic rhythms that the player piano's keys pound out but very much themselves -- a trait of Morris's dances that hasn't been much on display lately.
Their individuality shines, too, in the other dance new to Boston audiences: "Candleflowerdance" (2005), a sweet yet melancholy piece for six to Stravinsky's "Serenade in A." The dance, as the program notes, is a tribute to Susan Sontag, and comprises just what its name claims: candles and flowers and dancers. Couples push their palms together to create bridges, individuals pull their arms around themselves, reach far with a hand, and then caress their faces in a phrase as sad as a last goodbye. As a group they shape-shift: They're now a clump in the corner, now a line along a vertical, now tilting to a fall. The piece is slight but resonates long after you leave the theater.
Also on the bill are two older dances: "The Argument" (1999) to Robert Schumann's "Fünf Stücke im Volkston," and "Grand Duo" (1993), to Lou Harrison's "Grand Duo for Violin & Piano."
When first seen in Boston, "The Argument," a dance for three couples, featured Yo-Yo Ma on cello and Mikhail Baryshnikov paired with the beautiful Marjorie Folkman, who is no longer with the company. Tuesday night, despite electric performances from Julie Worden and Michelle Yard, the relationships between the battling couples just didn't carry the weight of the earlier incarnation.
"Grand Duo," though, finished the evening with a bang. A dance for 14, the piece is both primitive and mysterious, full of curling fingers pointing skyward and fists roiled in like fiddlehead ferns, floor patterns that dissolve and reform, tenaciously flapping wrists, stomping splayed feet, and circles that tighten like coils before they explode into lines.