Mark Morris and Dance History

Image: Prudence Upton

I was trawling through YouTube for Mark Morris vids in order to recapture the feeling from last week’s performance at the Opera House. You know how it goes, like a bizarre game of snakes and ladders, back and forth through time and space until you lose focus and end up watching home movies of cunning dogs and cats at play.

It didn’t take me long before my muscles were pinging, neurons firing in empathy as I landed on Pacific, the first item on Morris’ bill. For those of you who are maybe unaware, I was a Graham Cracker of the ‘90’s. This is an affectionate term for those of us who were Martha Graham devotees (or a parody for those who simply couldn’t comprehend what all the fuss was about). Four classes a day for over four years, in the first of which Graham would still make the odd appearance, wheeled in wearing black gloves and Chinese ‘happy’ shoes to conceal her plaguing arthritis.

I immediately understood the physicality, the overall sparse architectural quality, the jumps that defied gravity, the spatial landscape cut into a myriad of shifting geometric shapes; the dancers moving about the floor like lit gems imprisoned in a kaleidoscope, despite the influence of the court, with balletic gesturing of the peripheries to punctuate. Maher Benham, a teacher at Martha Graham, used to remind us that the junctures between our backs and arms were flying buttresses. Classical ballet was about the ethereal, while modern dance was all about baring the scaffolding. Classic lines were romantic, while modern lines were a symbol of heroism.

While the costuming in the first work billowed each time the light drapery captured the air from underneath and ruffled the hemlines like the dissipating bubbles of sea foam on descent, this did not completely disguise the virtuosic muscularity at work. A quartet of men, featured in static sculptural poses, exemplified the often bound nature of the dynamics. This work, along with the subsequent pieces, represented an evening of the modern genre in all its glory. Although, perhaps, without the angst.

This program was an interesting choice for the Opera House to commission. I am still wondering about the motivations behind it. This is why: we simply don’t have the same relationship with dance history. I was trying to rack my brain for some of the oldest Australian works we are still prepared to see in the modern or contemporary dance genres that would have a chance at a run years later. I came up with two; ADT’s Birdbrain, first performed at the Adelaide Festival  in 2000, and Chunky Move’s Glow (2006). (Albeit I have a lousy imagination and am sorry for dismissing many others you might deem to be in with a chance at another run.) Then I remembered that in November Bangarra Dance Theatre are remounting their seminal work Ochres, which premiered in 1994 at Carriageworks.

I recall Frances Rings showing me a teaser when she came over to take part in the program at Ailey. I was so excited about the work I said I would come back to Oz if I could be in it, not really thinking that this would ever eventuate. After six years in New York, it was the promise of returning to that work that prompted my return.

Surprisingly, Ochres does have a very strong underlying modern dance influence. The uniform western training of the day was a mixture of Graham- based modern taught by Paul Saliba and Carole Johnson, along with Horton-based modern jazz fusion from Ronnie Arnold, with ballet, tap, and folk. This combined with various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clan representative dances delivered to students of AIDT (Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre) and later NAISDA (the National Aboriginal/Islander Skills Development Association), many of whom were dancing in the company, including the co-choreographers Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong.

David Page’s musical soundtrack was very much a unique fusion of popular and ‘traditional’ or classical community soundscapes, which, like the dance, set a precedent for Indigenous contemporary theatre.

Still, the Australian public in general is much more fickle, much more prepared to move with the times, in comparison to the Northern American tradition of building and maintaining a dance legacy. Take Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, which premiered in 1960 and can still be performed to packed houses in the most prestigious theatres around the globe.
In Paris in 2013, I saw Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Drumming, which premiered in 1998 to sold-out audiences, and couldn’t get a ticket to Pina Bausch’s  version of  Rite Of Spring (1975) as part of the centenary year celebrations of Stravinsky’s work.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that we see the works that shaped our dance landscape, the ones that came before us? Who cares? And if we aren’t prepared to see our own ‘masters’ why would we be any more enthusiastic to see somebody else’s? This is the real reason I think some of the reviews I have been reading are tough and not so kind. The work shouldn’t have been advertised as innovative and ground-breaking, but of historic significance to a certain demographic.

Of course I am that demographic and the more realistic write-up in anticipation wouldn’t have dissuaded me in the least.

– by Vicki Van Hout