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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Visitation,' 'Empire Garden,' 'V'

by Carmel Morgan

June 12, 2010 -- George Mason Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia

A huge snowstorm in February 2010 in the DC area caused rescheduling of two Mark Morris Dance Group (“MMDG”) performances, resulting in a single performance on Saturday, June 12, 2010, at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University (“GMU”).  I was thankful to be able to attend in the spring, when the weather was much more agreeable.  MMDG performs regularly at GMU, and at least two GMU graduates have joined the company – Rita Donahue (B.F.A. 2002) and newly hired Billy Smith (B.F.A. 2007).  MMDG’s cozy relationship with GMU is likely a result of its ties to Assistant Professors Dan Joyce, a former company member; Karen Reedy, who also performed with MMDG; and Professor Susan Shields, who danced with MMDG in the holiday season hit “The Hard Nut” and was partnered by Mikhail Baryshnikov in Morris’s acclaimed dance, “The Argument.”

Morris is known for using only live music and travels with the MMDG Music Ensemble (Colin Fowler, piano; Jesse Mills, violin; Wolfram Koessel, cello; Jessica Troy, viola; and Michi Wiancko, violin), for which I am also thankful.  I wish all dance companies (and funders) considered live music a necessity.  However, even if they did, using live music and traveling with musicians significantly adds to the already large expense of running a dance company, and it probably isn’t financially feasible for most companies.  MMDG is a happy exception!

Morris himself is no longer dancing (excluding the annual appearance he makes in “The Hard Nut”).  Recently, Morris’s love of music has taken him in a new direction – conducting.  When asked during a pre-performance discussion to predict where Morris would head in the future, MMDG Executive Director Nancy Umanoff paused.  She noted Morris’s foray into conducting and also his recent use of more contemporary music.  We will all have to stay tuned to see where it is Morris goes next.

In the meantime, we can enjoy Morris’s two newest works, “Visitation” and “Empire Garden,” which both premiered last summer at the Tanglewood Music Center, where MMDG has been performing annually.  “Visitation” is the more classical of the two works.  In the pre-performance discussion, Umanoff reported that Emanuel Ax had suggested using Beethoven’s “Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1” to accompany the work, but Morris initially thought otherwise, only to come back around to Ax’s idea.

In “Visitation,” the dancers were clad in pedestrian-looking tops and pants in green, brown, and gray designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman.  They wouldn’t have been out of place in a yoga class.  The lighting design by Nicole Pearce also reflected shades of brown and gray.  Arms swung, bodies swung, and certain gestures pleasantly repeated.  Dancers with elbows bent away from their mouths looked like harkening angels.  Holding hands, the dancers did a version of ring-around-the-rosie.  Or they did a slow jog, with their arms in fists at their sides, or put their hands on hips hoe-down style.  I somehow got a Quaker or Shaker-like feeling from the mood of the piece – innocence, purity, joy, spirituality, discipline.  But humor interrupted the rarefied bits when one dancer pushed another down.


“Empire Garden” stood in great contrast to the relative simplicity of “Visitation.”  First of all, the music deeply differed.  For “Empire Garden,” Morris chose the peculiar “Trio for Violin, Violincello, and Piano, S. 86” by American modernist composer Charles Ives.  Like the daring music, the bold and colorful costumes by Kurtzman demanded attention.  Stripes, checks, and huge blocks of primary colors predominated.  The 15 dancers resembled Maoist jockeys in their mandarin-collared, silken, brightly colored and patterned pajama-type outfits.  As for the lighting design by Pearce, reflections from the rows of metal buttons on the costumes danced against a black backdrop, reminding one of dueling flashlights in a night sky.

Dancers bent over like tipsy puppets; moved determinedly like toy soldiers grappling for a place at the top of a human pyramid, even brandishing guns; or tucked low to the floor in lunges as if they were preparing to race.  Here and there they shook, wiggling a foot, a finger, a shoulder.  At other times, their arms jumped wildly, mimicking a conductor; flapped like folks doing the chicken dance; or bounced an imaginary basketball.  Later in the piece, dancers rolled on the floor, arms at their sides and mouths agape.  Contrary to the peaceful feeling imparted by ‘Visitation,” “Empire Garden” made one a little nervous.  The jarring work seemed to be mocking something – authority?

With “V,” a much beloved Morris work that premiered in 2001, the program returned to calmness and beauty.  Fourteen dancers made “V” come to life to the relatively soothing music of Robert Schumann’s “Quintet in E Flat for Piano and Strings.”  For me, “V” approached perfection in almost every way.  The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz – a set of vivid blue billowing tops with an upside down “V” at the point where one’s ribs join, plus shorts; and also a set of pale green V-neck tank tops and long pants with a V-shaped crease, sort of the inverse of the blue costume – and the elegant complementary lighting design by Michael Chybowski contributed to the near flawlessness of the piece.  The dancers, acting as a unified ensemble, lyrically melted, rocked, and spun.  The colors of the costumes mixed as the notes swirled around them.  The movement amplified the exultant strains of the music.

“V” contained a lot of repetition, and this reinforced the splendor of the music and the movement.  Part of Morris’s genius is that he makes you appreciate music by giving it visual representation on the stage.  In Morris’s creations, music is not a mere accompaniment to dance, it becomes an integral component of it.  Both the music and movement in “V” recalled lightness, breathiness, and triumph.  In certain string sections, the dancers crawled on the floor, sort of like ants, with their toes bent and their backs flat as tabletops.  Then, at intervals, they stood straight up from that position, skipping the various Darwinian stages in between.  This transition was odd, perhaps, but lovely and shockingly virtuosic.  I kept wishing to pause and rewind to revisit my favorite moments.  Maybe in Heaven I can do this dance?  Bravo, Mark Morris.  More please!


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