Kolam by Mark Morris Dance Group 
has its NY Premier at B.A.M.  
by Rajika Puri, NY
e-mail: rajikapuri@yahoo.com


April 12, 2003

The Mark Morris Dance Group who only recently moved in across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (B.A.M.) is for all intents and purposes their resident company.  To begin with, this was not only their eighteenth engagement at the Academy’s Opera House - but the second one in three months.  A Hard Nut, Mr. Morris’ zany version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, was BAM’s last offering in December ’02, the opening marked by a Gala night – an evening at which patrons are invited to cocktails, and dinner before the performance, and a big party after (which this time was a star-studded one at the Brooklyn Museum).

Photo courtesy of Susana Millman
Photo courtesy of Susana Millman

As usual, the company offered a couple of New York premiers - Kolam, commissioned by Yo-Yo-Ma’s Silk Road Project with music by Zakir Hussain and Ethan Iverson, a jazz-pianist, and Serenade, a solo performed by Mark Morris himself.  Both dances had an Asian flavour.  Kolam as the name would suggest, was inspired by Tamilnadu floor painting and included many elements from Indian movement traditions.  Serenade had many moments that were pure Japanese, though some spectators even saw Indian ones in it.

While the bulk of Mr. Morris’ work is set to western classical music – ranging from early masters like Bach and Handel to the more contemporary work of composers like Virgil Thompson and John Adams – he is also attracted to folk and popular music.  In fact, one of his opening night offerings was set to the very American square dance music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys!  

From the early days of his company (which opened in 1980 at the Merce Cunningham Studio in 1980) he has choreographed works to traditional songs from many different cultures – Romania, Tahiti, and Thailand.  In the early ’eighties he set two dances to south Indian music: O Rangasaayee sung by M. S. Subbalakshmi, and Tamil Film Songs in Stereo (Pas de Deux).  The first was a solo for Mr. Morris; the second a humorous interaction between student and teacher.

Mr. Morris has had an association with south Indian music and dance since he first studied Carnatic music as a young man, to his later tours in India when he struck up friendships with dancers like Chandralekha, whose great fan he is, and Lakshmi Vishwanathan, whom he even invited to teach a workshop to his company.  So his choice of a south Indian inspired piece as his part of The Silk Road Project is not surprising.

Kolam opens with a couple of dancers either standing on their heads or taking other yoga poses downstage left, as a huge abstract multi-coloured painting is revealed as backdrop and main element of set design.  In the orchestra pit, sits Zakir Hussain surrounded with his percussion instruments, Ethan Iverson on piano, Wolfram Koessel on cello (in Berkeley the cello was, of course, played by Yo-Yo-Ma), and Reid Anderson on bass.

Slowly the dance unfolds.  Two dancers carry a third, who seems to ‘tread water’ until she is set down on stage and falls into an Odissi-like pose.  This motif is repeated several times, until they start to move around the stage, thereby creating shifting patterns (kolam-like?) on the floor.  Occasionally one takes a nataraja pose, while at other times someone else undulates her or his arms as sinuously as a snake dancer.

Dressed in plain pyjamas – with colourful choli-style blouses for the women, the dancers often strike attitudes that, while they look generically like modern dance seem also to be inspired by Indian dance elements – a flexed foot here, and there, two bent arms held to one side, reminiscent of an Odissi tandava pose.  Towards the end, all ten dancers appear in what seem like Kathakali ankle bells.  Standing with loosely relaxed knees (rather than in any kind of half-seated position of ara mandi or ati bhangi) they start to work their feet – stamping rhythms on the floor.

The music, since the Indian input is by Zakir Hussain, is more north Indian in flavour than Carnatic.  At times the cello sounds like Sultan Khan’s sarangi and even breaks into a lahara section.  But while Mr. Hussain’s percussion is always interesting, in Kolam it lacks fire, since it is largely set within the confines of western compositional conventions.  As Ms Kisselgoff, dance reviewer for the New York Times, commented, Mr. Hussain “was relegated uncharacteristically to the equivalent of second fiddle.”  Unlike the accompanists for Mr. Morris’ solo Serenade, he wasn’t even seated on stage.

The star of the evening was, of course, Mr. Morris - who, though rather portly at 45 - still commands the stage with the magnificence of his personality.  Dressed by Isaac Mizrahi in a black sarong-like skirt and white wrap-around top, he played with several small, often musical, props – a set of finger cymbals, a pair of castanets, a fan, and even a cylinder lit from inside.  At one moment he looked like a samurai warrior spending a leisurely moment in a martial arts version of buyo (female Japanese dancing).  At another, with his castanets, he brought alive the feel of a jota, the popular Spanish folk dance.  Whether he sat majestically, swirling his head and undulating his arms, or glided around with his illuminated cylinder, he had us in the palms of his hands, wondering what he would ‘quote’ from next, how next he would raise a gurgle in our throats.

For in the end, Mr. Morris is a choreographer with a light touch.  He borrows movements from many places - and then weaves them into his own brand of dancing, which is fluid, airy, and whimsical.  Much of his work is quite lyrical, but Mr. Morris’ pixyish humour is rarely absent.  For all his brilliant mind - which can verge on genius - he is a man with a very definite sense of the ridiculous.  Since Kolam is not a weighty masterpiece, it’s a pity that Mr. Morris did not bring more of his humour into the piece, allowing us for once to get away from the burden of the reverential awe elicited by our classical dances.  Still the whimsy was there, and the dancers are wonderful. 

Rajika Puri, a Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer, studied ballet and western music at an early age.  She has also been taught by the great American modern dancers, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Nikolai.  In her current work Bharatanatyam Variations and Re-sculpting Odissi, she explores traditional choreography as a vehicle for multiple bodies moving in a theatrical space.