Mark Morris Up Closeby Susan Yung
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP AND MUSIC ENSEMBLE
MARK MORRIS DANCE CENTER | MAY 17 – 22, 2016
The Mark Morris Dance Group presented two New York premieres as a part of its spring season. Alongside two older pieces, the repertoire showed the range of Morris’s smaller-scale concert performance choreography, encompassing rituals and formalism both ornate and more classical in nature. They danced at the company’s intimate home theater on the top floor of its Brooklyn headquarters with live music by the superb resident ensemble, which has become a proud hallmark of the troupe.
A Forest is set to Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Piano Trio No. 44 in E major,” played by a violin, two cellos, and piano. The nine dancers wear black and white unitards imprinted with a toile pattern similar to what you might imagine would paper a 19th-century French dining room. The costumes were designed by ex-company member Maile Okamura, and Nick Kolin created the vanilla lighting.
Morris often establishes particular movements and gestures for each dance. In A Forest, three trios evoke the titular tree groves; hands sprout and twist upward like branches. Knees buckle and legs wiggle to emphasize rhythm and to visualize trills and other musical flourishes. The dancers do a snooty walk on tiptoe, one hand on their hips, the other positioned as if holding a tray. With a slightly contracted torso, downward curved arms form a smooth arc. Ballet poses—arabesques, tendus—pair with Haydn’s classical music to convey an air of haughtiness.
In a solo, Noah Vinson shows elegant serenity; Brandon Randolph, magnetism and polish. The dancers spread-eagle their limbs and turn like spinning starfish, or stride to the beat, arms wind-milling in a mock backstroke. Four form a circle and then a square around a man, helping him raise a leg high. They drop to a cross-legged sit and pump their fists in front of their faces. In the final flourish, Domingo Estrada handstands and waves his legs impishly as the house darkens. The dance is full of affectations and quirky gestural garnishes, and feels as if it hails from an era when artist salons and shaped topiaries prevailed.
The intriguingly titled The, by contrast, begins with sweeping movements and bold strokes that feel like the dancers are moving air, or are lifted by it. Accompaniment is a four-handed rendition of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major,” performed by music director Colin Fowler and George Shevtsov. Both Nicole Pearce’s plein air lighting and Elizabeth Kurtzman’s blousy pastel-hued gaucho pants and singlets evoke oxygen and sunshine. The second movement is marked by stasis and entrapment. A number of dancers become the set: they lie down and form an elongated teardrop shape, performing tiny actions such as walking their fingers or bending a knee. When four of them stand and strike jagged sculptural poses, Sam Black tries to help those still supine to their feet. But they collapse.
The lightens (literally and figuratively) as Stacy Martorana and Vinson initiate a playful section: dancers pair off and spin or chase each other. The stage becomes a flurry of limbs and billowing costumes as duos caress each other’s faces, or perform other gestures of affection. It may have been a grasp for narrative, but I discerned a celebration of gay marriage in the finale as same-gender pairs raised clasped hands overhead while gleefully exiting the stage. The’s propulsive energy and evocation of the outdoors—contrasted with A Forest’s sense of an interior space—counter to the implication of its title.
The program included Cargo (2005), inspired by a South Pacific belief that material goods were made by ancestral gods. It is among Morris’s more narrative vocabularies, as the dancers—clad in white underwear—obsess over bamboo poles and make primate-like displays of curiosity and envy. Also on the slate was Foursome (2002), a male quartet to songs by Satie and Hungarian dances by Hummel. Jaunty, full of whimsy, and laced with threads of Czardas folk dances, it is a reminder of how pure and inventive Morris’s choreography can be given musical inspiration.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.