stg: mark morris—a review

MARK MORRIS DANCE COMPANY

May 21–23
Jesu, Meine Freude (Nan Melville photo)
a review by Marcie Sillman



A REVIEW
by Marcie Sillman

Mark Morris Dance Company 
Saturday, May 22, 2010 at the Paramount Theatre
Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Tudor Choir

One evening, not too long ago, I ran into a woman I know at a Pacific Northwest Ballet performance. I was a bit surprised to see her there, as her sister is a cellist with the Seattle Symphony, and the Symphony had a big performance that night, too. But the woman confessed to me that she likes to “see” rather than listen, to her music. If that’s the case, I hope she was in the audience for the Mark Morris Dance Company performances at the Paramount Theatre, May 21–23.

So much has been written about Mark Morris’ relationship to music, his ability to translate an aural art form into a kinesthetic one for bodies on a stage. I haven’t seen much of his work in many years, but if the three dances on the Paramount bill are a representative sampling of Morris’ overall repertoire, then I can attest that all I’ve read about his musicality is true.

The Mark Morris Dance Company performs to live music. For the Company’s three most recent Seattle visits, that music has been supplied by members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. This year, the Symphony was joined for two of the three dances by the Tudor Choir. Morris himself conducted the musicians in their performance of Gloria, by Antonio Vivaldi. The other two pieces, Franz Joseph Haydn’s A Lake and Jesu, meine Freude composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, were conducted by Christian Knapp. I don’t profess any musical expertise. That said, the Gloria felt like it lacked a dynamism that I found in the other two pieces. I don’t know if that’s inherent to the composition, or was a result of Morris’ conducting. Either way, the musical interpretation colored my experience of this particular dance.

Gloria (Lauren Grant and company dancers; Stephanie Berger photo)

Created in 1981, Gloria was the earliest Morris work on the program, and the choreographer told an interviewer he wanted to conduct to get a fresh perspective on a dance that he’s seen too many times. The dance, the movement, didn’t bore me. It was fascinating to study how Morris deploys his dancers as a visual embodiment of the music’s harmonic patterns. As the lights come up, we see two dancers, one standing, the other lying face down. The other eight dancers enter, and immediately drop to the floor, prone. One by one, they rise, move, then resume their places among the face-down pack. As the piece progresses, the dancers are grouped in twos and threes, and each little unit performs a particular set of movements. I couldn’t help but imagine each dancer as a single note of music, three together forming individual chords, and the groups of three as illustrations of Gloria’s compositional structure. Despite this intellectual fascination for me, as well as the strength and technical prowess of the dancers, after a while the unwavering pace of the music created a lulling drone, and it was hard to pay attention.

I had less a sense of music embodied in the evening’s other two dances. A Lake, created in 1991 for the White Oak Dance Project, was stunning. It opens with a tableau of seven dancers standing still, barely lit, against a blue backdrop. Gradually, they evolve from silhouettes to fully lit forms, the way a landscape comes into focus as dawn breaks. After each movement of Haydn’s composition, the lights seem to evaporate up into the ceiling above the stage, as if some spirit was sucking them heavenward. The stage goes dim, then is re-lit. Designer James F. Ingalls has created a small masterpiece of lights. The dancers are equally luminous; in particular, David Leventhal was a sprightly, joyful presence in the dance’s third movement. He’s very small, but his energy filled the stage in this duet, his wide smile telegraphed joy.

Jesu, Meine Freude (Nan Melville photo)

Jesu, meine Freude followed A Lake in the first half of the program, and for me it provided many choreographic links to the first dance. I wrote down in my notebook “hands and arms.” Throughout this piece, I couldn’t wrench my eyes away from the intricate patterns the dancers create with those appendages: from small triangles formed with thumbs and forefingers, to palms folded one over the other, forming the kind of shadow birds you make with your hands to amuse little children. The dancers are clad in white: the men, topless, wear wide-legged trousers. The women float across the stage in ethereal white dresses. The music may derive from Christian liturgical tradition, but this dance melds the devotional with an earthy sensuality that’s accentuated by all those heaving, sweaty male torsos. As the Tudor Choir members praise Jesus with their voices, the dancers worship the holy through their bodies.

The synchronous beauty of the dance and live music was marred, somewhat, by the venue. The Paramount’s restored grandeur is nice to look at, but when it comes to watching dance, give me The (shabbier) Moore any day. The Paramount’s sightlines, even from the center of the house, are only fair. There just isn’t enough rake to provide a full view of all that’s happening on stage. And for this particular performance, that was really a shame. Mark Morris showed himself to be a master of not only music, but space. His dancers show us extended arms and legs that form the kind of clean, crisp lines that would make a ballerina envious. Morris uses not only the stage floor, but vertical space as well. The dancers lie prone or supine, kneel, or perch atop one another’s shoulders. At times the energy of the movement, the technical skill of the dancers, the rhythm of the music all combined with a power that overflows the stage’s confines and pours out into the audience. And the audience responded.

Mark Morris founded his company 30 years ago, when he was in his 20s. The three dances on this bill are all at least 15 years old, creations of a young man one assumes had not yet reached the height of his choreographic prowess. Watching this program, you can’t help but wish you had a chance to see Morris’ current work (PNB presented a 2001 dance last season), and to reflect on the magnitude of his impact on contemporary dance. Mark Morris is only in his mid-50s; how much we have to look forward to.