In assembling the program for the Sounds of India series he is curating for the White Light Festival, Mark Morris has included two rarely seen works from the earliest years of his career, in which he now passes on his own roles to his company dancers. Created several months apart, during a prolific period when Morris was first attracting serious critical attention and earning praise as a dynamic force moving modern dance into a bold new future, both The "Tamil Film Songs in Stereo" Pas de Deux and O Rangasayee are set to recordings of Indian music. Both were originally showcases for Morris’s own exceptional and distinctive powers as a dancer.
Morris had traveled to India for the first time in 1981, on tour as a member of Laura Dean's company, and his experiences there—particularly in terms of the music and dance forms he encountered—had a major impact. He has returned regularly through the decades, immersing himself in the nation's art forms, particularly its wealth of musical styles.
These White Light performances mark the first time the solo has been performed since its premiere.
Morris especially admired the eminent vocalist M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916–2004), a leading exponent of the Carnatic southern Indian style. He set O Rangasayee, a 1984 solo, to her recording of a 23-minute raga by Sri Tyagaraja. Wearing a white loincloth, Morris moved with hypnotic focus through subtly shaded repeating phrases as he embodied both sensual delight and religious fervor. These White Light performances mark the first time the solo has been performed since its premiere.
Morris cut a distinctly comic figure—imperious and impatient—in The “Tamil Film Songs in Stereo” Pas de Deux, where he translated into dance terms a vocal lesson in which a male instructor grows increasingly impatient and fierce with a struggling female student. According to Morris's biographer Joan Acocella, he had bought a tape of the music from a street vendor in Singapore. He deftly translated its vivid vocal exchanges into a concise, comic mini-drama that Arlene Croce described as "the funniest comic turn in dance today."
Serenade, a solo set to Lou Harrison's five-movement Serenade for Guitar, was created two decades after these early works. By 2003, Morris had choreographed a number of dances to Harrison's music; he felt a strong affinity for the American composer and developed a friendship and collaboration with him, commissioning an original score in 1997.
Multiple cultural and ethnic influences flowed through Harrison's compositions, and Morris particularly responded to his scores' rhythmic ingenuity and complexity. In an essay about the creation of this solo for the New York Times, Morris wrote that the Serenade for Guitar "is a piece of music I have been drawn back to over the years. It is so tender and finely webbed, so all over the world, that I realized it could be the basis of a new kind of dance."
Morris was in his mid-40s when he choreographed and performed Serenade, which has a ceremonial formality evocative of various Eastern cultures; its costume suggests a Japanese influence. Each section is a self-contained mini-portrait inspired by the intricate rhythms. Morris incorporated finger cymbals and castanets in the final two sections, further embodying the score's rhythmic essences.
Because he has always been a forward-looking choreographer, with a new project or commission on his schedule, Morris is including a world premiere for 12 dancers alongside this compendium of older works. Pure Dance Items is the title Morris has chosen—as though to discourage any inquiries, god forbid, as to what the dance may be "about." He is choreographing to six sections of Terry Riley's 1986 Salome Dances for Peace, a full-evening string quartet composition created for the Kronos Quartet. In a 1990 New York Times article about Riley, K. Robert Schwarz wrote that the expansive composition "mingles Asian modes, static drones, Arabic melodic arabesques and nontempered tunings with dissonant Bartókian counterpoint, bluesy inflections, jazzy syncopations, and Minimalist repetition."
This premiere marks the first time Morris has turned to this seminal and influential American composer, who for much of his career prioritized spontaneity and improvisation over formal composition. Riley also devoted considerable energy to investigating non-Western musical forms. In 1970 he traveled to India to study with the vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and following that began "setting aside a large amount of time for my studies in North Indian classical music," he told Schwarz.
So there is clearly a fascinating meeting of artistic sensibilities at work for this premiere. In addition to his deep musical sophistication, which has enriched his extensive catalogue of works, Morris has always been receptive to, and appreciative of, a broad range of cultural influences and traditions, finding ways to express his appreciation and respect through creations that are distinctly his own.
Susan Reiter is a freelance journalist who writes about the performing arts for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, TDF Stages, and Playbill.