The beginning of Gloria, an early Mark Morris masterpiece, is simple but startling. The stage is shrouded in darkness as a choir sings in Latin of God’s glory. When light finally floods the space, one expects, with such music, to witness a dance of jubilation. Instead, one sees a man on the floor, dragging himself forward on his stomach. His partner, if one can call her that, staggers beside him, holding her side as if in pain.
Gloria, which was performed superbly by the Mark Morris Dance Group at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven last week, is one of few Morris dances that are overtly religious in tone. The subject of this work, made in 1981 and set to Vivaldi’s Gloria, is salvation. For Morris, the road that leads there is paved not with gold but dirt, and one doesn’t walk this path so much as crawl along it.
In Gloria, the journey is more cyclical than it is linear. Moments after a line of dancers crawl across the stage, two of whom are hauled away by their legs like debris, Laurel Lynch and Michelle Yard playfully hop and skip in canon while others bound through between them. Elsewhere, the whole cast dances gleefully in unison, throwing their hands up and wiggling them like flappers, before returning to earlier images of toil.
Joy and pain often coincide. In the fifth movement, set to “Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,” four dancers hobble along the edges of the stage as a group, twitching as they move. One by one, they break off; the convulsions stop, and their steps become lighter, even frolicsome, and they achieve grace while spinning in place and balancing on one leg. When Maile Okamura is left alone on the floor, the others abruptly clutch their sides again, returning to their earlier weakened state, and it’s Okamura’s turn to dance freely. A similar image can be found in the finale: Nine dancers stand frozen in a V-formation with their arms stretched ecstatically toward the ceiling while the dancer in front remains on his belly.
Another work on the program, 1995’s Jesu, meine Freude, is also set to religious music (Bach’s eponymous motet). Its tone, however, is more spiritual than religious, and its choreography is far more mysterious that that of Gloria. In Jesu, one finds constant tension between static formalism and fluid or frenzied movement. As the piece begins, Noah Vinson and Aaron Loux, their backs to each other, strike angular poses with their arms and hands that wouldn’t be out of place in an Egyptian frieze. Minutes later, when Amber Star Merkens arches her spine and bursts into small but frantic kicks, that composure is lost. The dancers could be struggling to maintain composure or rebelling against it.
The most obvious subject of A Lake (1991), which opened the program, is its score, Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 2 in D. While it’s difficult to find a narrative, the piece’s noble spirit and sense of community are palpable and touching. In the first movement, both playful and refined, the cast hops and walks briskly without disturbing the regal carriage of the upper body, and the second movement finds the dancers catching and pivoting one another as they fall.
Other passages in A Lake are remarkable for their purity of movement. Were it not for the music and Martin Pakledinaz’s vaguely classical costumes, one section marked by tilted torsos and divided action, could be mistaken for choreography by Merce Cunningham.
Leading the Yale Choral Artists and the Yale Collegium Players for this triple-bill was a special conductor: the choreographer himself. (Morris has conducted Gloria and another signature work, Dido and Aeneas, for years and recently added A Lake and Jesu to the list.) The skill all brought to this performance made one appreciate more than ever Morris’s commitment to live music.