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MMDG: A Very Musical Offering

The Mark Morris Dance Group stopped by UW World Series this past weekend, March 5-7, with a strong show of some of Morris’ more recent works. A modern dance company after the old model, MMDG presents a show that combines excellent dancing full of physical rigor and technique with the cohesion that comes from a much-lauded choreographer’s decades of repertory (Morris founded the company in 1980). The company has also had its own music group, the MMDG Music Ensemble, since 1996. The in-house live music added an extra layer of cohesion, the music and dance fitting like a glove—but which the hand and which the glove is up to interpretation. Morris’ choreography works so closely with his music, and since he treats it as an equal in performance, he offers the audience both a quality chamber music concert and an evening of world-class dance.


Mark Morris Dance Group in Words
Photo by Ani Collier

Pacific opened the evening on a balletic note, not surprising considering its origins as a 1995 work for the San Francisco Ballet. Elegant limbs complemented erect torsos with all the regal stature of classical ballet. The almost rigid effect was softened, however, with luxuriously expressive upper body movements. Arms wrapped and heads fell so that the dancer lived in the extremes of closing off his or her body and fully opening it in vulnerability. Men and women alike wore long, bright skirts that made them appear taller and more stately. The work recalled a sculpture gallery, but one that breathes and has blood running through its veins. Like in all Morris works, the movement was intricately tied to the music: here, a trio for violin, cello, and piano by Lou Harrison.


Words, the most recent work on the bill (it premiered just this past October at New York’s Fall for Dance Festival), departed from Pacific’s high tone: a gleeful sort of insincerity hovered over the ensemble of sixteen dancers. The title makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” and the choreography for Words balanced discursive tendencies  with tight composition. Dancers engaged in full-on conversations told through gesture, body language, and rhythmic precision, often with comedic effect—so much of comedy, after all, is timing. The stage alternated between being full of voices and showcasing a smaller group’s dialogue. Though the work felt a bit long, as if it said everything it wanted to say about two-thirds of the way through, the dancers were a pleasure to watch throughout.


Mark Morris Dance Group in Jenn and Spencer
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Jenn and Spencer, named for the role originators Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez, and performed here by Weddel and Sam Black, portrayed a very fraught romantic relationship. The pair created a vivid image circling each other at a distance with an outside hand raised—poised to strike? thrown up in frustration?—their eye contact bringing a charge to the space between them. The emotional tone of Jenn and Spencer stood out among the other three, larger group pieces of the evening.

The intimacy of this duet drew the viewer into a world, rather than parading the world in front of the viewer (which was the case, and very rightly so, for both Words and Crosswalk). The work had a larger-than-life feel, however, with Weddel and Black’s joint presence easily filling the Meany Hall stage. Henry Cowell’s “Suite for Violin and Piano” added drama with an exceptionally expressive performance from Georgy Valtchev (violin) and Colin Fowler (piano).

Mark Morris Dance Group in Crosswalk
Photo by Elaine Mayson

Crosswalk was one of those pieces you can’t describe without calling it “delightful.”  The clarinet and piano music by Carl Maria von Weber certainly helped set the tone. (Case in point: Weber also wrote the music that became Le Spectre de la Rose—more delightful dance.) Crosswalk projected youthful exuberance and neighborhood feel, with three women in orange dresses and a male ensemble in white grouping themselves in playful factions. The cast’s primary mode of transportation seemed to be skipping, closely followed by somersaults, but these were so deftly integrated into the choreography that the dance came off as both witty and playful. Crosswalk created a world that would have been a lark to join.


More information on Mark Morris Dance Group can be found here. More information on the UW World Series here.