Watching Mark Morris Dance Group last week at Rose Theater, an annual highlight of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, I was suddenly aware of the absence of many of the company’s longtime members who have retired in the last year or so. At any moment, I expected David Leventhal, Julie Worden, Bradon McDonald, June Omura, and Joe Bowie to bound onstage as they had for ages, joining the familiar faces of sophomore and freshman dancers that now cheerily peopled the stage. Of course the company is pretty stable as they go, with constant minor flux, but it does seem to have undergone a wave of generational change recently.
It’s not that the new dancers are any lesser, it’s just that I don’t yet know them. In fact, as has been the case perhaps always with Morris’ company, the level of classical technique seems to be on the constant ascent (seen prominently in the limby, precise William Smith III), and some familiar dancers—Samuel Black, in particular this week—are sinking deeply into Morris’ style, imbuing every movement with his own unique plushiness and drama. It’s a perennial characteristic of long-established companies that the dancers develop followings in their own right, particularly when roles are created on them. But then they leave, and we miss them.
This occupied my thoughts as I was watching the premiere, Renard, to Stravinsky (performed live, as Morris mandates), with costumes by illustrator Maira Kalman. It was a bit off the beaten track for Morris, whose last New York run of repertory works at his own studio was a marvel of formal flourish and intricate patterning. Renard, the folk story of a cat, fox, cock, goat and three hens, was all baldfaced slapstick, forced humor, and kitsch. It contained a good deal of logistical maneuvering rather than dance, in high contrast to the beautifully crafted Festival Dance (which I reviewed here), resplendent in a larger theater, and Socrates, to Satie.
As bawdy and frenetic as Renard is, Socrates is the opposite: gentle, thoughtful, elegant, in keeping with the namesake’s wisdom and rationality. In one phrase, the entire company sinks into a plié in second and barely noticeably shifts from right to left. The cohesive delicacy and organic feel—like a long, slow breath—showed just how united the company is, despite all the new dancers who will become old friends soon enough.