by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP
THE MOORE THEATRE
'Cargo' - Music: Darius Milhaud La creation du monde, Op 58. (2005)
'A Wooden Tree' - Music and words: Ivor Cutler (2012)
'Whelm' - Music: Claude Debussy 'Des pas sur la neige,' 'Étude pour le notes répétées' 'La cathedral engloutie' (2015)
'The' - Music: J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major arranged for four-hands piano by Max Reger (2015)
Mark Morris and the idiosyncratic songster Ivor Cutler are a marriage made in heaven. 'A Wooden Tree' - the title of a sequence of dances to fourteen Cutler songs - is simultaneously risqué, pastoral, and very funny. My favorite was 'Deedle, Deedle, I Pass,' a skipping tune played on a wheezing harmonium as Cutler's quavering tenor sings:
'Here is an old country game,
it is called Deedle Deedle I Pass.
You take a fair maid through the flowers
and lay her down flat in the grass.'
Anyone familiar with Morris's sense of humor can picture the jolly couples in a country dance suddenly flinging their partners to the ground and pouncing on them. In the opening sequence we hear Cutler announce that his songs 'are in the good old English style' and you can, indeed, hear strains of Handel, Purcell, and the British music hall in his songs - a style that has attracted Morris throughout his career and inspired some of his greatest work. In 'A Wooden Tree' we see echoes of 'many a youth and many a maid/dancing in the checquer'd shade' from 'L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato,' and we recall the drinking song 'Your hay it is mow'd, and your corn is reap'd' from 'King Arthur' as the guys strut to 'Stick Out Your Chest.' Four couples move from pantomime to reels to square dances in these fourteen sequences, dressed in argyles, vests, knees socks and pleated skirts. They look like whimsical, slightly ironic manifestations of country lads and lasses, just as Cutler's songs are whimsical, slightly ironic manifestations of old English songs.
An early version of 'A Wooden Tree' premiered at On the Boards in 2012 (with an unannounced appearance by Mikhail Baryshnikov!), which was much more cockney in its character and costuming. I must admit I liked that cockney presentation a bit more than the less literal setting of the current dance. There was something about the men in their corduroys and flat caps that resonated with Cutler's mood - far more cheery and old fashioned than winking and ironic, as the fair maiden flung to the turf would agree:
If the maiden can't stand what you're doing
and thinks your behavior is crass
you put back her shoe and her stocking
and cry Deedle Deedle I pass!
My other favorite dance of the evening of the four on offer was 'The' to Max Reger's four-hand piano reduction of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Morris is justly renowned for his embodiment and expansion of music - particularly baroque music. He has a special understanding of its fugues, its ornamented repetitions and its spinning out of themes, and he knows how to make these variations visible without being predictable. When he causes your eyes and your ears to register the same idea in through two ranges of the sensorium, your brain (or your spirit) goes 'Oh!' or 'Wow!' or even 'Hallelujah!' I have always found Morris' baroque dances - 'L'Allegro,' 'King Arthur,' 'Mozart Dances,' 'Acis and Galetea,' 'Dido and Aeneas' - to be sublime, in the sense that they make another world tangible. Catching a glimpse of that other world, where things are complex, beautiful, and orderly, makes those qualities seem possible in this world.
'The' was one of that genre of dances - the embodiment of the baroque idea of beauty, charm, and patterns of order - but because it was so short and so light, it did not lift the veil for me as the longer works do. Nevertheless, it had the virtue of reminding me of those works and wishing to see them again. And while Mark Morris is wonderfully successful, has built a dance company, studio, school, and ever so many wonderful dances, I still wish he had the resources that Balanchine had at the New York City Ballet, where he could make full-length dances every year for decades. Morris is at his most brilliant making full-length works. Yes, dances like 'The' and 'V' and 'Going Away Party,' though short, are unforgettable - but this stage of Morris' career should be moving him beyond an array of shorter works and towards the big works that come from big challenges.
My point is somewhat confirmed from the other two works of the evening. 'Cargo,' used nine of MMDG's best dancers in an interesting progression of movements around bamboo poles, couched in a narrative of first encounters with strange objects (as in 'cargo cults'). The wit of showing us more things to do with a pole than any of us could possibly imagine is well worth seeing, and in any other choreographer it would be a significant accomplishment. But in a dance-maker like Morris, who has the rare power to show us the Mystery, it makes you wonder how this idea would have developed with three times the dancers and an orchestra.
Likewise 'Whelm,' a strange narrative of mourning and death, is an interesting idea - black-veiled widow, three black-clad figures who seemed to move in and out of various dimensions of reality - often creating fascinating compositions as mysterious as the Debussy piano sonatas that swirl around them. I enjoyed watching the acting and performing skills of the dancers (Dallas McMurray is particularly compelling) and I enjoyed the imaginative narrative as it unfolded - even though it was impossible to understand fully. I also enjoyed engaging in Morris's ideas. But I wanted the whole story - the before, the after, the underneath. Because we know what Morris can do with a big stage, a big company, and a big orchestra, I wish he could move beyond working in miniatures.
I know it's all about the money - and in this regard Morris has pulled off a hat trick: a fully-employed company, live musical accompaniments, and a school/studio for everyone from kids, to aspiring professionals, to those suffering from Parkinson's disease. What more could we want?
We could want more full-length works. Where are the Seattle billionaires when we need them? Hey, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Craig McCaw, Gabe Newell, James Jannard, Steve Ballmer - why not devote the interest on one day of your billions - heck, one hour of your billions - to MMDG? Chump change to you would mean, for the rest of us, deathless works of sublime genius forever.
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