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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Somebody’s Coming to See Me Tonight’, ‘All Fours’, ‘Candleflowerdance’, ‘Grand Duo'

by David Mead

October 25, 2005 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, England

After a six-year absence Birmingham welcomed back Mark Morris, this year celebrating the 25th anniversary of his outstanding company, the Mark Morris Dance Group. The programme gave us a wide range of flavours, harsh and soft, angular and lyrical, music from different periods. Typical of Morris though, it was never boring.

“Somebody’s Coming to See Me Tonight” is danced to songs from the American Civil War period which have associations with slavery and minstrel shows but Morris ignores these, preferring to make a series of dances about love, sleep, death and romance. Highlights were “Soirée Polka” for which Morris created something reminiscent of an American square dance for four couples, “Linger in Blissful Repose”, a quite beautiful adagio piece for three women, and “Katy Bell”, fast and fun for the whole ensemble. Where Morris is clever is in giving each dancer the chance to shine and the choreography for each song its own feeling, without ever losing the sense of whole.

Bartok’s String Quartet No 4 is not the sort of music most people would want to sit and simply listen to. Morris says that the music was “hard to learn”, which is quite believable. Like the music, the choreography for “All Fours” is angular and hard, complex and intricate, often with sharp staccato movement. Essentially, eight darker clad dancers act as a backdrop for four in cream but as ever with Morris it’s not that simple. Dancer’s break off from the group and relationships form before they return to the whole. Nicole Pearce’s superb lighting simply adds to the feeling, especially when she uses a plain, blood red cyclorama or harsh white light.

“Candleflowerdance” was probably the least satisfying work on show, maybe because it was the least accessible. All the action takes place on a plain white square, centre stage, framed by some candles and flowers in a vase. That may sound romantic. The movement is anything but. Quite harsh with lots of straight lines, both in the shapes and pathways, reflecting the space it’s being performed in and to some extent the music, although Stravinsky’s “Serenade in A” for solo piano is definitely one of his more accessible scores. The piano is usually on stage but some reason, in Birmingham it was in the pit, which may have made a significant difference to the look and feel of the work.

The evening concluded with “Grand Duo”, a powerful large ensemble piece with more than a hint of ritual about it. The dancers project an incredible tribal energy, sometimes working in two straight lines, sometimes in circles. The choreography perfectly reflects Lou Harrison’s pulsating score for piano and violin, the dancers’ stamping and pounding feet simply adding to the sense of energy and the rhythms from the pit. Those in Birmingham who saw BRB’s production of Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” earlier in the year cannot fail to have noticed the parallels, although this one ends with an upbeat polka rather than death.

Morris is at his best in large ensemble pieces like this. He is one of the most musical choreographers working today although you can argue whether he is making it work for him or whether he’s a slave to it. Whichever it is, and maybe it should best be seen as an equal partnership, it works. The way he uses his dancers and how he constructs works is an object lesson for others.

The company doesn’t appear outside London too often. Make the most of the chance to see him while he’s here and whatever you do, make sure you stay for his post-performance question and answer session, which is an entertainment in itself.

The programme was accompanied live by the excellent singers and musicians of the Mark Morris Dance Group Ensemble.

 

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