by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
UW WORLD DANCE
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP &
MEANY CENTER FOR
THE PERFORMING ARTS
February 21 & 22
The Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the Meany Center for the Performing Arts last week with three dances - including one major new work - as part of the University of Washington's wonderful dance series, a decades-old enterprise that has brought a tremendous variety of important dance companies to this city. Though Seattle is a hotbed of dance creativity, we would have fewer claims to an educated, engaged audience without this ongoing program that seeks out and presents the best that the entire world has to offer in modern and contemporary dance. One reason to support this marvelous series is that MMDG returns to Meany Hall on a regular basis.
As ever, Morris and his troupe of 19 dancers and live music ensemble covered a tremendous range of movement and feeling. In three dances the audience progressed through the delightful to the meditative to the sublime, through music ranging from the popular - this time from the 1920s - to the great classical repertoire that Morris explores so well. And, in the opinion of this admirer, Morris returned to the highest levels of his greatness with a new dance to Schubert's 'Trout Quintet.'
I say 'returned' because during his last visit to Seattle in 2018 with 'Pepperland' (2017) I was beginning to worry that he might be losing his touch - not his ingenious choreographic touch, or his love and brilliant use of music - but of his ambition or ability to probe that side of his genius that leads to the sublime. 'Pepperland' was charming, funny, colorful and joyful, but it missed the underlying dangers of its age that made the humor and wistfulness in the Beatles' music more poignant. This quality of the sublime - the mysterious as opposed to the literal - is present in Morris' greater works such as 'V' (2001), 'King Arthur,' (2006) 'Mozart Dances' (2006), 'Dido and Aeneas' (1989) and the immortal 'L-Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato' (1988). The list of transcendent works is much longer, of course, given Morris' huge body of work, but MMDG is unusually consistent in reaching the depths and heights of the enigmatic. I am happy to report that he gave us that experience again in 'Trout,' cleverly introduced by 'Dancing Honeymoon' (1998) and 'Numerator' (2017).
'Dancing Honeymoon' (1998)
Music: Fifteen popular songs from the 1920s
Vocals: Mark Morris with MMDG Music Ensemble
This delightful work premiered on the stage at Meany Hall 21 years ago, and has clearly not lost any of its charm. Seven dancers (including Seattle's own Aaron Loux and the great Lauren Grant) dressed in bright summer-vacation costumes enter a sunny stage to enact the jolly, yet slightly odd sentiments of an earlier time. The repertoire, sung in a strong baritone by MM himself (who knew? In another life he could have been a triple threat on Broadway) included old favorites like 'You Were Meant For Me' and 'Limehouse Blues' as well as novelty songs such as 'And Her Mother Came Too' and 'A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich, and You.' What lifts this work beyond its charm is the precision of the choreography, as though a bunch of Bertie Wooster's friends traded in the Charleston for precise, complex movement.
The dance works on diagonals at four levels - floor, chairs, feet, standing on chairs (which are also thrown around in patterns) - all while maintaining goofy Bertie Wooster smiles. There is a deception here - a lot more going on than the surface would imply. Though the pre-performance speaker, MMDG dance veteran Brian Lawson, emphasized that the dances have no programmatic meaning - that there are no codes of meaning in modern dance - Morris is a master of meaning, probably because he doesn't insist on his own program but constructs frameworks that allow the viewer to see into their own codes. While 'Dancing Honeymoon' seems like simple entertainment, it rubs its happy music against a sophisticated, intentional scheme of movement that suggests that even the Bertie Woosters of the world have inner lives.
Music: Lou Harrison - 'Varied Trio for violin, piano, and percussion'
Morris loves the work of composer Lou Harrison and has devised many dances to his compositions. 'Numerator,' celebrating Harrison's centenary year, is a dance for six men using instrumentation that creates the effect of an Indonesian gamelan - an assembly of percussion instruments that create sounds and rhythms quite different from western music. To my ears it sounds ethereal, exciting, mysterious, like the dance Morris made to this work. Six men enter the stage upper right, one-by-one, on their stomachs, slowly crawling on the diagonal to lower left, rising to elbows, knees, crawling, then gradually standing, raising arms to heaven before leaving the stage. To me it looked like a moving 'Ascent of Man,' establishing a theme of growth and development. The word 'numerator' is at once the mathematical term of quantity in a fraction and a person who enumerates or counts things. It's a cool word - but I'm with Brian Lawson on this one - I don't know what it means and I'm not going to impose a meaning onto it.
The dance itself was wonderfully intriguing, especially seeing a group of men execute complex movements together, that allow relationships to evolve without the clichés that bubble up when watching mixed couples dance. Lawson, who was an understudy when Morris created this dance, said that the dancers are encouraged to improvise by executing the prescribed gestures in whatever space on the stage they choose and in whatever direction they want to face, which makes the dance somewhat different every time it's performed. I saw it twice and looked for differences - I could see the dancers negotiating space much as you would when walking on a busy sidewalk. As the relationships evolved and melted away during the dance I found any inclination to conventional assumptions about human relations melt away as well - which was the magical element of this dance for me.
Music: Franz Schubert - 'Quintet in A major [Trout Quintet]'
I found this dance to be exhilarating. For me it was a welcome return to Morris' roots in classical music transformed by dance into something heart-lifting. This very familiar quintet (you would know it the minute you heard it) is replete with moments of drama, lyricism, and repetition - the kind of repeating that gets fancier every time. The costumes, by MMDG dancer Maile Okamura, are very beautiful - softly colored, semi-transparent dresses for the women, neutral pants and flowing blue blouses for the men - that ripple as the dance proceeds. As I left the auditorium on the first night I listened to people talking about how much the blue lighting and the costumes made them think of trout. I didn't think of schools of fish, to be honest, nor do I think that was the general aim, but there was a unity and joyfulness in this dance that reminded me of the final passage of 'L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato' in which dancers in gorgeous colors race across the stage, arms extended, expressing the sheer joy of being alive.
While this dance was as highly structured as the music, with beautifully repeated gestures - a forward bending leap into the wings occurring simultaneously as dancers leave downstage right and upstage left, trios of dancers in which the middle person twirls away leaving a duet to complete the figure, dancers leaping into a partner's arms to be swung low to the ground, an outstretched leg describing a compass arc - the dance itself did not seem burdened by 19th century ideas. Morris has found a way into the music that is uniquely his own, and that shows us things we never thought of before about something that, to many of us, is very familiar. One trope that I especially love, that Morris has used before, never fails to intrigue: the use of the sides of the stage to have dancers enter and exit as though two villages next door to each other share a common central ground. When you see repeated entries and exits confined to one or the other side of the stage, you suddenly realize that the stage is a patch of ground in a much larger setting, and that the dancers are finding their way to this center space just as you are.
My dance buddy for the evening was very frustrated by this phenomenon. The entire first movement is given over to dancers walking onto and leaving the stage as if exploring it for the first time. She had no patience for this, and it put her in a bad mood for the rest of the dance. 'But didn't you love the trios that became duos?' I asked, while the auditorium was cheering after the finale and she was standing with folded arms. 'Didn't you love the trout dance itself with all the jumps and fancy footwork?' No, she said, she wasn't just bored, she was annoyed. Why did he do this? Why did he do that? Why didn't he do this? Why not that? My buddy and I have seen many MMDG dances together, and I know her expectations are high, but no higher than mine. As I ponder the disparity in our reactions I think there may be as much commitment in a protest as in a celebration. I loved it, folks - I felt like Mark Morris was at his best again. I wasn't weeping at the end, the way I did at 'L'Allegro' or 'V' or 'Mozart Dances' - it was more like being with a cherished friend from whom you always learn something new, and recognize something eternal. I feel the way people must have felt during Mozart's lifetime, or Handel's, if they were alert; the way we all felt who were in New York during Balanchine's lifetime: How lucky I am to be alive at the same time as a great artist - and to realize that it's happening.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!