At the Rehearsal
For years I used to teach a course called "New York and the Arts" at Hunter College, and one of the high points of the semester was always the moment when I got to take my class of freshmen to a rehearsal at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. This year I'm not teaching the class, but that didn't seem sufficient reason why I should miss out on my much-loved fieldtrip, so I asked Mark Morris and his executive director, Nancy Umanoff, if I could come to a rehearsal by myself, and they kindly said yes.
At yesterday afternoon's rehearsal, Morris was working on a new dance set to Carl Maria von Weber's Grand Duo Concertant, to be premiered in April. For the ninety minutes that I watched him work, he was repeatedly reconfiguring the eleven dancers--eight men and three women--in a section of the dance that will probably take up about thirty or forty seconds of elapsed time in performance. Eleven is a hard number to work with. Not only it is a prime, and therefore not susceptible to easy division (in contrast, say, to its next-door neighbors, ten and especially twelve), but it is a large prime, too big to be grasped easily as a coherent unit, the way smaller primes like two or three can be. "Why did I choose eleven? No one forced me to choose eleven," the choreographer was muttering to himself as he deployed and redeployed the dancers in various formations.
I love watching MMDG rehearsals--especially rehearsals of new dances that are coming into being on the spot--because it is one of the few chances I ever have to see actual thought taking place. There are at least two different kinds of thought going on in such a case: Morris's own inventiveness, which involves moving dancers around as if they were giant chess-pieces (except that there are no firm rules to this game) and deciding which patterns work and which don't; and the dancers' related but different kind of thought, which joins the physical to the mental in a near-simultaneous spark of ideas. Time and again, I saw Morris give a brief instruction to his dancers--a suggestive phrase, a specific hint about how to move, a question about other possibilities, a small gesture of his own--and then I saw them translate it into movement: coherent movement, in which they all gestured together or in a related way, and beautiful movement, in which the patterns traced by their legs, arms, torsos, and heads all made sense, separately and together. The whole process went very slowly, until the rehearsal pianist (Colin Fowler, who is also Morris's performance pianist) struck up a few bars of the music, and then it all went by at warp speed. The final dance, when it is finished, will be thrilling, I think; but nothing will ever be quite as fascinating to me as getting to watch it take shape in this way.
After Morris left the room, his rehearsal director, Matthew Rose, worked on an older dance, The Office, with the six or so dancers who were learning it for the first time. Set to a Dvorak Bagatelle, The Office is and always has been one of my favorite Morris works: lyrically beautiful, melancholy to the point of being frightening, and yet also very joyful in places. It has an overall air of carefree simplicity, mingled with an underlying complexity of rhythm and design that is deeply challenging to the dancers--yet these six were picking it up as if they had been born to dance it. It was especially thrilling for me to watch Rose take apart the separate strands of the "trio" section, instructing one dancer to begin a three-beat move on the first beat, the second to enter on the second, the third to enter on the last, and all three to add a little hiccup of syncopation at different points in the sequence--and this doesn't even begin to address the very complicated semaphores they were making with their arms, not to mention their whole spatial relationship to each other. As I said to one of the dancers when the rehearsal was over, it was like watching Ricky Jay perform a magic trick slowly (not that he ever would, for an outsider like me!). Beneath the surface magic that I have always loved in this dance was an entirely other, more calculated, yet no less beautiful magic.