– review – review

Mark Morris Dance Group, King Arthur

By Henry Purcell. Directed by Mark Morris. Costumes, Isaac Mizrahi. Scenic Design, Adrianne Lobel. Lighting James F. Ingalls

Conductor: Jane Glover

New York City Opera

New York State Theater

March 5-15, 2008

An English National Opera/Mark Morris Dance Group/New York City Opera production in association with Cal Performances, Berkeley

Photo: Carol Rosegg

These days, to see Mark Morris’ work, go to the opera. His company doesn’t have a repertory program in New York this spring, but his production of King Arthur was just at New York City Opera. He was at the Metropolitan Opera last year with Orfeo ed Euridice. And his new production of Romeo and Juliet, with Prokofiev’s original score, will premiere this July at Bard’s Summerscape festival.

Fortunately, Morris is blissfully at home in the opera genre, a creative perfectionist whose wishes are smartly heeded. King Arthur’s music was written by Henry Purcell, with libretto by John Dryden. Morris deleted the spoken text because he didn’t like it, which he plainly states in the program, leaving a trim two-hour production. Morris mainly pairs Purcell’s sweet, rhythmic tunes with movement of equal, plain-faced clarity. The steps underscore the melodies and bass lines and lyrics, quite a different purpose than forming the structure as Morris does in his own repertory work.

Part of the choreography’s appeal is its accessibility, almost child-like in its approach. And yet Morris manages to find invention time and again, like pulling gold threads from a haystack. As the 16 dancers build a movement dynamic, such as a cross-stage pageant or a large circle, the repetition sets in the mind so that a rhythmic hiccup or slight change of direction can feel like a bold discovery. Descriptive gestures are repeated like musical themes — a visual shorthand underscoring a thematic or character trait. The seven fine singers, led by Mhairi Lawson, are given some of these gestures, which allow them to blend a bit with the dancers.

The production itself is a model of economy, designed by Adrianne Lobel. Rolling elements include platforms, staircases, trees, and doorways are supplemented with plain metal folding chairs (marked “KA”). Blingy set elements are a shimmering tinsel curtain, a maypole, a snowmaking device, and gold ribbons on sticks for a ribbon dance. Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes run the gamut — quirky contemporary separates, medieval touches (white ruffle collars; chainmail unitards), homely brown and beige leotards, salutes to Brittania in red, white and blue. Some silly animals enter the fray—a leopard (in a leopard-print raincoat wearing Grace Kelly glasses and a scarf), giraffe, bear, duck, and bird, in variously allusive costumes.

But generally, Morris trusts us to make the leap of imagination given the clues he offers, rather than approximating reality. Folk dancing is prominent, as expected and hoped for. In the maypole dance, someone calls out the directions as one might hear at a square dance. It is satisfying to watch the ribbons weaving and unweaving by dint of dancers making patterns – something tangible being produced.

Morris pulls out the stops in the finale, as if to say if it’s a show you want, then a show you’ll get. A huge Austrian curtain descends as some dancers fire off back handspring stage crossings. In a flurry of activity, the many props are set so that the singers form a pyramid, surrounded by dancers doing a fantastic ribbon dance with their lengths of gold. In lieu of fireworks, stagehands fire paper airplanes across stage — a completely fitting and giddy denouement in Morris’ most relaxed and whimsical style.

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Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."