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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight,' 'Cargo,' 'Rock of Ages,' 'Gloria'

by Dean Speer

May 5, 2006 -- Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle

I’ve known Mark Morris since he was 16 years old, dancing with the balalaika folk dance group associated with Seattle’s Russian Center at the time.

The Russian language teacher at my high school had arranged for a couple of us to take a private class from Mark at the Russian Center. I never forgot meeting him, his mother (who observed from the couch), and how he just about killed us. It was a great class, and seeing how difficult dancing could really be – and the level of accomplishment one could attain – I was inspired by this challenge, and resolved to become very serious about dance and to try to master it. So, unintentionally, he motivated me to pursue a career in dance, which, after my body took three days to recover, I’ve done ever since!

So it was with great interest that I attended a pre-performance lecture on Mr. Morris and his work. The lecturer polled those audience members who had been long-time Morris watchers, wanting to know how we felt his choreographic work may have evolved over the course of our observation. While the lecturer only took one response, I did formulate an answer and that comes down to my belief that his work has become more mature. Certainly his talent as a dancer was very impressive early on. His talent too as a dance-maker exhibited fresh promise and bloom right from the beginning.

Morris deploys the compositional tools of the choreographic trade such as repetition, variation, transference, and includes many inventive geometric patterns and groups. Many times he has lovely ideas and his dances are performed with great execution, yet for all of this, I find they don’t go anywhere. I feel like I’ve had a visual tone bath but am still hungry for a satisfactory resolution to his pieces.

A good example of this is his large-scale and early success, “Gloria,” which premiered in 1981 and was revised in 1984. It’s got some great things going for it – a score by Vivaldi, and some typical motifs, such as the movement where the dancers crawl across the stage from right to left, intermittently broken up by a vertical sole dancer. Morris  gives us great beginnings, good middles, but endings which are not necessarily conclusions. I’m reminded of how Balanchine once reported  how many times he’d make the ending of his ballets first so, as he put it, “he’d know where he needed to go and how to figure out how to get there.” Kind of a choreographic map. Doris Humphrey put it well when she wrote, “Never leave the ending to the end.”

Four works were presented and of these four, I found that I most enjoyed “Somebody’s Coming To See Me Tonight,” set to nine Stephen Foster songs, partly due to feeling like it did satisfactorily conclude, resolving sweetly. The dance dresses the women were in reminded me of some of the period costumes Graham used to make and also of Humphrey’s “Shakers” outfits, minus the headpieces.

“Cargo” to Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde” impressed me as having a similar jumping off point as that movie where a coke bottle that was tossed out of an airplane, changing the lives of an entire African family and village. In this case it’s a pole. The program note reads, “Cargo Cults of the South Pacific believed that manufactured western goods (‘cargo’) were created for them by ancestral spirits.” This was the most recently made work on the bill, and nicely demonstrated Morris’ increased maturity and mastery over works that tell a story, though “Cargo” is not literally narrative. It was clear that we were going somewhere with this piece, which ends tragically for one tribal member, thus spooking the rest.

Lyrical and at a “walking pace,” “Rock of Ages,” to the adagio movement from Schubert’s “Piano trio in E flat,” is from 2004 and also a good example of a lovely piece,  but one that didn’t go anywhere. As reported to us eager audience members, apparently this dance can be re-configured for as many as 16 dancers, as few as four and for any combination of genders. I thought Morris said what he had to say early on but, trapped by a pre-written score, extended the piece to fit the full length of the music. The dance was longer than it needed to be, and didn’t sustain and build itself.

Morris’ work can be a hard nut to crack. Often with a veneer of cheerful (and sometimes goofy) accessibility, but which actually defies pigeon-holing. Some works do fall into “what you see is what you get,” while others have depth, artistic maturity, a sculptured kinetic beauty, and nearly always, a fine-tuned responsive ear, revealing the aural mysteries and magic of the wide range of musical inspirations from which he draws. I believe some of the maturity stems from his now making dances on other people and less for himself, as he’s cut back on performing. It’s given him a different view, or approach, to making his art.

It’s also interesting to compare the work he does for his own company with that of commissions created elsewhere. I believe that in his mind, they fall into another category, almost a difference genre. One of these is entering Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory this coming season and it will be fun to see how it sits with both the dancers and the loyal PNB subscriber base. I suspect each will be pleased to be able to enjoy some lively art made by one of Seattle’s own.

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