May I Kindly Introduce My Friend, Modern Dance?
Mark Morris Dance Group (photo © Gene Schiavone)
I’m pretty sure I was the only person panicking as the crowd streamed into the ornate Paramount Theater last Friday night to see the Mark Morris Dance Group. Ballet is my thing—Petipa, Balanchine, Forsythe, Tharp—and I have yet to connect with its rounded, grounded, barefoot contemporary cousin. That’s why other folks cover modern-dance for SeattleDances. But other folks were variously occupied and so, taking a deep breath, I joined the excited, expectant crowd and walked through the Paramount doors.
What you can sense from the lobby chatter is that Seattle has a huge crush on local boy Mark Morris. He may have built his studio/school in Brooklyn, and he may have gotten there via Brussels, where he served as the Monnaie’s dance director from 1988 to 1991 (imagine following Maurice Béjart!), but we still love him.
You can see why in the interviews that he’s given. (An oldie but goodie: New York magazine’s 2002 profile. Newer:a video on Paramount’s website and his On the Boards interview.) He seems energetically and thoughtfully passionate about his art, he has personality, and he even appears to have a sense of humor about his ego. He speaks intelligently and interestingly, using specific, concrete words and metaphors to teach and entertain and explore.
This year, Morris brought home Mozart Dances, a piece that has garnered praise from the press since its 2006 premiere. “A masterpiece” and “a wonder,” according to John Rockwell of the New York Times. I think there were many in the audience on opening night of the company’s three-day run here who would have agreed. Mozart Dances received a warm welcome from the audience, little chuckles of amusement and surprise throughout, and a standing ovation at the end.
While Mozart Dances didn’t convert me to a Modern Dance lover, I found it to be a gentle, encouraging introduction to the art form.
Mark Morris Dance Group (photo © Stephanie Berger)
The opening thrilled me. Eleven (the first of the three dances) starts with the dancers in a line upstage, in simple but impressive silhouette against Howard Hodgkin’s backdrop. Seven women face upstage; seven men face the audience and, when the lights go up, these men walk forward with a stride as purposefully straightforward as the opening four chords of this piano concerto.
I found more to love as Mozart Dances progressed through Eleven, Double, and Twenty-seven.
Mark Morris Dance Group (photo © Stephanie Berger)
I was blown away by the beauty of the arms, across the board almost, but especially those of Michelle Yard, who is in the front in the image at left.
I saw and appreciated things I’d never seen before.
And the shock of a man shooting out from between two columns of dancers and ending up wrapped around another man’s torso.
And the “steeple” that is mentioned in many reviews, where two dancers stand close together, their arms reaching upward together, forming an intimate, sacred bond.
What I enjoyed most, however, was how Morris used movements that I recognized from other contexts. (This, I think, counts as Modern Dance ethos, so there may be hope for me yet.)
For example, Joe Bowie’s Baroque pose brings to mind (a studly version of) Louis XIV or some courtly dancer from later years. Bowie is probably a lot more fun to watch, though.
Another example appears in Double. The men dance in an unbroken circle, an impossibly fluid game of mobius-strip chain tag. My companion couldn’t shake the reference to Matisse’s painting, a reference that annoyed him but fascinated me.
Other “seen-befores” that made me so happy to be watching this work included the underdog, recalling one of free-est feelings from childhood. Morris creates it in Mozart Dances with two dancers standing in for the swingset.
I love the unified quality of this company. It isn’t that every dancer performed every moment exactly the same, that every head was tilted the same way, that angles and lines matched perfectly, nor even that every dancer hit a pose on the same note. Yes, they were often very together in that way, but it seemed to go deeper than that. Maybe I’ll see if Mark Morris can tell us about it; I can only give the abstract mumbo-jumbo comment that I felt as though everyone was dancing the same piece.
Martin Pakledinaz, who has done so much effective costume design for Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera, scored another hit in Mozart Dances. I want him to make men’s clothes. I want him to make women’s too. (I’ve actually worn something of his before: I was a fit model for one of his Iphigénie en Tauride costumes, back when I worked at Seattle Opera. Fittings are not supposed to be fun, but this one was a gas. He’s got personality, too, and the Opera’s Costume Shop people can always be counted on to inspire one’s creativity. And, wouldn’t you know it, Pakledinaz had me dance around so he could see how the costume moved.)
James F. Ingalls’ lighting design did its job, illuminating and flattering the dancers, adding greatly to the mood in Double, and helping the scenic backdrops pop out.
And the eponymous music? Although Mozart Dances is so music-centered, I didn’t really listen carefully to the orchestra. In some ways, the dancing served as subtitles for the aural aspect of the piece. I wish I had thought to pay more attention, as the orchestra was composed of Seattle Symphony musicians, with piano by Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki. Dance audiences don’t often get to hear music played solely for its musical intent, so I missed a great opportunity. (I’m not knocking our local dance conductors. Theirs is a complicated balancing act and dancers need their intelligent, sensitive support.)
I know that I missed other aspects of what makes the Mark Morris Dance Group special to so many fans. I could see why Mary Murfin Bayley would comment in her 2000 Seattle Times review that “[his company] makes you feel like it’s OK to be a human being. Not only OK. Downright delicious.” But I just couldn’t get there myself. I was alternately entranced and frustrated by Morris’ relentless repetition of motifs. I could watch Bowie and his Billy Budd partner flick their hands (arms in second position) for an hour but one second of the Pony in Twenty-seven would have sufficed for me.
Saddest of all, I didn’t understand Lauren Grant. Everyone raves about her solos: I could see that she was strong, energetic, feisty, and good, but I couldn’t drop my ballet filter enough to enjoy her movement in the way that those around me were doing. More to my taste were the emotional connection created by Maile Okamura (who infused steps of strength with a personal grace) and the nobility and personality of Bowie in his black frock coat.
I think that if I were a budding choreographer, I would study Morris’s work carefully. It seems like you could learn a lot about possibilities and pacing from watching it. The repetition and lack of virtuoso movement (noted in a few articles) notwithstanding, this rates as complex, intriguing work. I loved how individual dancers would peel off from a group, as though the departure were part of the dance. I loved tracing the patterns; it was fun to realize that a long pattern that started on stage left in Twenty-seven was repeating itself reversed on stage right. And Morris certainly uses entrances and exits effectively. (I found myself wondering what would happen if he had a set that allowed for entrances upstage.) And then there is his awareness (or luck?) of the scenic element’s role. For example, in Eleven one woman does a layback right under one of the backdrop’s big black brushstrokes, and the two seem to amplify each other.
In her 2007 New Yorker review, Joan Acocella asks how Morris gets his dancers to perform so unaffectedly. I don’t know the answer, but the effect certainly went a long way in helping me to find a foothold on my path to enjoying Modern Dance.
I left the Paramount eager to see more of Morris’s work, eager to learn more about him and his dancers, but also quite determined to send a Modern Dance reviewer the next time his troupe comes town. S/He’ll be in good company: there were plenty of reviewers at last Friday’s performance besides me. Here are links to some of their reviews.
– Rosie Gaynor
Sandra Kurtz – Seattle Weekly