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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Excursions', 'Petrichor', 'Silhouettes', 'Going Away Party'

by Carmel Morgan

February 4, 2011 -- George Mason Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia

George Mason University hosted the Mark Morris Dance Group (“MMDG”) again in the middle
of winter, as it does practically every year. This year, thankfully, the weather didn’t interfere!
Like usual, the audience brimmed with Morris devotees, many of them silver-haired. Having
overheard various conversations, it seems that a large segment of those who come to see MMDG
on a regular basis, at least in the DC area, are classical music fans. They worship Morris because
he shares their passion for fine music, played live. Morris’s dances respect and illuminate music,
and it’s no surprise that diehard classical concertgoers find his work appealing. Morris makes
dances that speak to music lovers in a way few others choreographers do.

This year’s performance, however, was bereft of the heart-racing splendor that the best of
Morris’s choreography imparts. Instead, cutesiness and kitsch showed up, as did recorded
music, which is almost unheard of in an MMDG performance. “Going Away Party,” is an
enjoyable cowboy romp, set to the heart-achy tunes of Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys.
Because the work premiered in Belgium in 1990, I wondered whether the Belgians possessed
a particular longing for boots, twang, and fringe, or whether Morris and his company became a
little homesick while in residence in Belgium, and decided to devote a piece gently mocking the
cowboy/cowgirl image that’s so deeply identified with America.

At any rate, “Going Away Party” gave the audience a good time. I decided I could forgive
Morris for foregoing live music in favor of the slightly hollow sound of the recording, which
made the loneliness in the lonely songs more palpable. Yet the problem with “Going Away
Party,” at least for me, is that I found myself wanting to see actual square dancing. I’m a native
of the Appalachians, where gals scoot around with their men to fiddles in a certain way that
Morris’s dancers don’t. “Going Away Party” struck me as pleasant, but sort of sanitized and
self-conscious. Sometimes it’s more fun to see less attractive women pump their knees and
kick out their ankles, trotting around their partners, than it is to see modern dancers twirling and
mugging ever so perfectly.

“Silhouettes,” performed aptly on Friday night by Domingo Estrada, Jr., and Noah Vinson to
Colin Fowler’s excellent playing of Richard Cumming’s “Silhouettes – Five Pieces for Piano,”
also suffers from cuteness, but to a lesser degree. It seemed to be the evening’s biggest crowd
pleaser precisely because of its cleverness and humor. Vinson wore a navy blue pajama top, and
Estrada wore the matching bottoms. Together, the men mirrored each other and played off the

visual trick of being halves of the same unit. They did so with such charm, one couldn’t resist
smiling throughout the work. The idea may have been simple, but the athletic choreography
challenged the men and thrilled the audience, in spite of the slightly silly concept.

“Excursions” left cuteness aside for the most part; however, it contained a couple annoying
elements of dance cliché – the ubiquitous aimless jogs around the stage, for example. Against a
reddish orange backdrop and a string of low-hanging lights that looked like a large smile (Nicole
Pearce designed the lighting), the dancers moved to the rhythms of the music (Samuel Barber’s
Excursions for the Piano, Op. 20, IV, III, II, I). Where the music got jolly, the dancers jauntily
bounced along. The music and dance both exuded a sense of fun. Morris made little snippets
of awkward movement – a seated lunge and rock that looked like riding a pony on the ground
(without the pony present), a dancer’s body swung between the legs of two other dancers as they
walked forward – amusing and oddly graceful.

The prettiest piece, though, was the new work, “Petrichor,” which premiered in Boston in
October 2010. (The word “petrichor” refers to the scent of rain on dry earth). The baby doll
tops and silvery iridescent short unitards of the eight women might be described as cute, but the
dancing, inarguably, went far beyond the realm of cuteness and approached divinity. “Petrichor”
didn’t make me catch my breath or begin to tear up, as the best of Morris’s choreography does,
but on a second viewing, maybe it would produce that reaction. I know I like something well
when I want to see it again, and I yearned to watch “Petrichor” once more after it had finished.

An all-male quartet (MMDG Music Ensemble’s Georgy Valtchev (cello), Omar Guey (violin),
Philip Kramp (viola), and Andrew Janss (cello)) played the music -- Heitor Villa-Lobos’s
String Quartet No. 2, W100 Allegro non troppo; Scherzo – Allegro; Andante; Allegro Deciso
– beautifully. In fact, nearly everything about “Petrichor” evoked beauty, except maybe the
costumes, which got very mixed reviews in my informal poll during intermission. The baby
doll tops in pale gray or vivid pink fluttered elegantly, I thought. Others, however, were stuck
on their shortness of the tops and the shininess of the tiny unitards barely covering the women’s
behinds, which were often exposed.

In “Petrichor,” arms rippled continuously. My eye caught rolling reaches, arms often gloriously
outstretched. As the dancers leapt, the fabric flew. The dancers might have been butterflies,
or sails in the wind. I figured it wasn’t a coincidence that all of the dancers in the work were
women, and indeed, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Morris said that he used all women
because several senior male dancers had recently left the company. The movement smacked
of femininity, and reminded me a bit of classical ballet. I can see no real reason, other than
looking funny in the costume, why a male company member couldn’t perform the work, too.
(Morris has used dancers interchangeably, regardless of gender. He originated the roles of Dido
and the Sorceress in his masterpiece “Dido and Aeneas”). However, the all-female ensemble
in “Petrichor” seemed just right, and they danced together brilliantly. The men, perhaps, have
some catching up to do!

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