by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP
UW WORLD SERIES
GEORGE MEANY HALL
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
It has been ten long years since the Mark Morris Dance Group has been part of the UW World Dance Series, so its return for three nights this month was a wonderful gift to the grateful audiences who packed Meany Hall. Yes, we've seen MMDG at the Paramount over the years, and looked down on the dances from the massive distances of those huge balconies, but to see them in the intimacy of Meany Hall again was a tremendous gift for which dance lovers can thank UW World Dance director Michelle Witt and the many generous donors who made the MMDG return possible.
And what a great return it was! We were treated to four Seattle premieres, including a re-working of 'Pacific,' a ballet Morris choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet and that we have seen here at the Pacific Northwest Ballet en pointe, but now given to us in its barefoot mode without any loss of soaring quality. The other three dances were delightfully familiar in that Morris is always determined to beguile the viewer, but with a depth of movement and meaning that places Morris in the top category of living choreographers and, in my opinion, of artistic genius in any category. In spite of the impossibility of describing the non-verbal complexity that makes MMDG so unique, here is my take on the dances, which I was fortunate to see on all three nights they were presented:
'Pacific' to Lou Harrison's 'Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, Movements 3 and 4':
Morris is famous for using live music in all his performances because, as he told an audience at a UW interview, 'dancing to recordings eliminates the possibility of music to influence the choreography.' In this gorgeous work for nine dancers in flowing skirts, an array of gestures is developed first by a trio of men in blue, then by a quartet of women in green, then by a couple in red, while the back scrim changes to match the costume colors. Just when you think you understand the patterns evolving to Harrison's lively trio, the dancers return in ever-shifting variations to mix up the colors, movements, and configurations in mirror images, domino progressions, fugues, and a beautiful simultaneity of arms that form shapes like (for lack of better terms) moons, cranes, willows, boxes - in ever-shifting and spinning groups. The audience succumbs to this swirling language of movement as Harrison's joyful music seems to inspire the dancers to create on the spot a semaphore language that can only be understood by feelings and intuition.
'Words' to Felix Mendelssohn's 'Songs Without Words':
This was my favorite piece of the night - a playfully complex work for sixteen dancers choreographed to ten of Mendelssohn's fifty short piano pieces called 'Songs Without Words,' though in this presentation they are arranged for violin and piano. Morris uses the intriguing device of a gray cloth screen carried across the stage by two of the very colorfully costumed dancers, so that each movement's dancers are escorted on and off the stage in a way that creates a kind of stage magic. Even though you could clearly see the dancers' feet under the screen you were always surprised by who left and who remained, as if a magician were waving a wand. As the screen came and went for each of the ten movements, we were treated to fast and funny dances, jolly skipping dances, complicated group dances and - one of my favorites - a slow, meditative dance by a male and female couple standing with their backs to each other and moving away and back again like points on a compass, later joined by another couple who mirrored their dance at a 90-degree angle. Morris often complicates his gestures by repeating them simultaneously at different angles, as though there were an invisible audience in the round. This technique is like cubism in that it shows you all sides of the object at once, only here in lovely, fluid movement. This collection of dances has more virtues than a short space can convey. Suffice it to say that at some points I laughed out loud and at others I was moved to tears.
'Jenn and Spencer' to Henry Cowell's 'Suite for Violin and Piano':
A man and a woman - in this case Jenn Weddell for whom the work was made, and on various nights Sam Black and Brandon Randolph - engage in a dance relationship that involves pushme-pullyou waves of love and hate, or at least attraction and repulsion, in a dance that circles, chases, entangles, and embraces with alternating courtliness and aggression. Morris shows off the artistry of the dancers with relentless intensity - including a grown-up version of the angel stand - and which concludes with the woman socking the man in the jaw and stalking off. There were nods of understanding in the audience, particularly among the men, who shared the male dancer's final look of confusion as if to say 'What on earth does she want?' My dance buddy has instructed me to tell you that what she should want is a new costume. I wasn't bothered by the long backless nightgown, but something shorter and less bed-roomy was what my (very stylish) buddy thought would work better to moderate some of the eroticized upside-down movements of this intriguing work.
'Crosswalk' to Carl Maria von Weber's 'Gran Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano Op. 48':
This marvelous dance is in contention for my favorite of the night because it deploys eight jeans-and-tee-shirt guys (or, in this case, one gal standing in for an injured guy) and three gals in perky orange dresses (the kind of dress I think my buddy wanted to see on 'Jenn') who skip, run, and tumble through a non-stop drama of criss-crossing busyness. When the three orange-clad girls emerge from the traffic flow to hold hands and perform a unison dance in classic style I was reminded of the three graces in Morris' masterpiece 'L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato' (which has finally been filmed, thank goodness) that brings an eternal quality to the quotidian rush. Another Morris memory I had as I watched 'Crosswalk' was from 'Going Away Party,' performed in Meany Hall in 2003, in which a group of square dancers swirl to country music and at a key moment one cowgirl exits the stage in a somersault that was so startling to me at the time that I remember it clearly a dozen years later. 'Crosswalk' is a paean to somersaults, with trios of boys and girls lifting each other and then dropping into somersaults in increasingly rapid movement until the whole stage erupts into a popcorn bowl of somersaults. Later the dancers rush in from the wings in flying somersaults, which are so delightful you want to laugh out loud. Another great echo from 'L'Allegro' is the Egyptian-frieze walk in which pairs of dancers in slow profile walk in an alternating pattern of order while a trio of two girls and a guy chase each other in wild disorder. This juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful, the hyper-orderly and the grotesquely chaotic establishes the two poles of life between which all of us are 'crosswalking.'
Mark Morris has a zen-like commitment to the present moment, which is why live music is so essential to his work with live dancers and live audiences. In his UW interview Morris said 'I'm not interested in self-expression - it's about expression. It's not about how you feel or how I feel - it's about how things are together - you, me, the dancers, the music - and then it's over. That's what's so wonderful - you don't get to reproduce it.' It was my good fortune, and that of the audiences who packed Meany Hall for three nights running, to be part of the ephemeral relationship among a great choreographer, his dancers, his musicians, and his audiences. Part of the poignancy of Morris' work is this willingness for the dance to be over - when some of us wish it would go on forever. Well, none of us is immortal - but I think Mark Morris' dances may be. Long may he live - and long may we watch these wonderful dances.
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