Morris dancing

The first time I saw the Mark Morris Dance Group perform “Grand Duo,” it was the proper way: as part of the audience in the Tulsa PAC’s Williams Theatre, where the acclaimed company gave its Tulsa debut Friday night, as part of Choregus Productions' season.

The second time was in a less conventional manner: watching a portion of the performance Saturday night on a silent TV monitor in the PAC’s lower lobby.

And both experiences underscored the fact that, while just about every choreographer draws inspiration from music, few choreographers create dances that are more purely, completely musical than Mark Morris.

“Grand Duo” is set to, and takes its name from, the Lou Harrison composition “Grand Duo for Violin and Piano.” Grand it is, too: in scale, in complexity, in density. It ranges from eerily insistent threnody to violent, cacophonous roar, and it was performed Friday night with stunning ferocity and passion by pianist Colin Fowler and violinist Joanna Frankel.

Those qualities were equally present in the performance by the 14-member company, from the haunting opening, as dancers’ hands reach at first tentatively, then yearningly, into a stream of bright light just over their heads, through sections of harsh beauty and primitive power that called to mind the effect Stravinsky and Nijinsky were after with “The Rite of Spring.”

Whether that was the intention, I’m not sure. Morris’ choreography is rarely “about” something; rather, it contains something – and I use “contains” in the sense that wild animals can be contained, but not completely tamed.

Morris’ choreography is all about the music – making very human and earth-bound art out of this ethereal, ephemeral art form. It’s what gives his best work its sense of spontaneity, as dancers follow a musical logical rather than a narrative or emotional one.

And within this approach, there are myriad opportunities to create moments of humor both child-like and slyly adult, which showed up often in the other works on the program, “Canonic ¾ Studies” and the male duet “Silhouettes.”

It also means that, just as people will have different responses to a given piece of music, there’s no one way to look at a Morris dance piece, no one reaction that is “correct.” And that can make his work frustrating, especially if one is looking for some sort of convention thread – a story or a feeling – to guide one through a piece to its “meaning.”

I think that is why “Going Away Party,” set to eight songs by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, didn’t quite work for me, because the simplicity of the musical forms used didn’t allow for a whole lot to be contained within this work. There were bits of square dance vocabulary in the choreography, some crude sexual humor, the sense of Morris – in spite of his stated love for Wills and his music – making a piece that was as much satire as celebration.

Which brings me back to “Grand Duo,” and those two very different performances. Of course the one I saw Friday night was the best way to experience the work – it was an overwhelming onslaught on ideas and imagery, evoking a tangle of conflicting emotional responses – joy and terror, community and isolation, tribal joy and warlike hatred – through movement that never resorted to obvious gestures, familiar combinations of steps.

To watch most ballets without their accompanying music makes the dancing look, well, a little silly. But I never thought that “Grand Duo” looked odd without my being able to hear the music, because, thanks to way Mark Morris choreographs, I could see perfectly well what I wasn’t hearing.