A recent weekend escape to the Berkshires gave me a chance to see the premier of Mark Morris’s latest, Cargo, at Tanglewood. It was definitely worth the trip.
The cargo in question is a long wooden pole, lying casually on an empty stage when the curtain rises. The dancers enter in silence, animal-style, bent and loping or on all fours. One of the men seizes the pole. The music begins – Milhaud’s darkly jazzy La Création du Monde – and the company becomes, in essence, a cargo cult. (Cargo cults developed among isolated communities in the South Pacific when unfamiliar items from wrecked ships washed ashore. Mahogany breakfronts, silver trays, chamber pots and more became objects of veneration.)
Morris’ dancers explore the many possibilities of the pole. It’s a game, a weapon, an icon, a way to bring people together, a way to keep them apart. Two more poles appear and the possibilities multiply. Driven by the insistent rhythms of Milhaud’s score, the mood changes from disturbingly ambiguous to fiercely competitive to sunny and festive. The finely honed ensemble captured all the wit and energy of the piece, and the audience gave it an enthusiastic welcome. Clearly, Morris has another winner on his hands.
The piece is yet more proof of Morris’ gift for blending practicality with art. It was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer-long program of master classes and intensive workshops for young musicians, mostly recent conservatory graduates. TMC places strong emphasis on chamber music, small ensembles, and contemporary music. La Création du Monde, written in 1923, is scored for 18 musicians. (The limited musical forces are also important to the Morris company, whose policy is live music at every performance, but whose budget does not cover a full orchestra.) Furthermore, the Boston Symphony, which runs Tanglewood, has strong ties to the Florence Gould Foundation, dedicated to supporting musical performance and advancing Franco-American amity. They especially love to see American artists perform French music…. In short Morris has a genius for survival in these trying times.