Mark Morris Dance Group and MMDG Music Ensemble

Mark Morris Dance Group and MMDG Music Ensemble

The Annenberg Center, Philadelphia

Feb. 9-10, 2018

Mark Morris’s ambitious ‘Dances’ in Philly

Choreographer Mark Morris is the Annenberg’s inaugural residence artist and along with a slate of ambitious dance related projects he has initiated this winter, his company The Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble, returned to Philadelphia after a 14-year absence for two performances of Dances to American Music, with the choreographers ballets inspired by 20th century masters George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell.

At the February 10 performance, the Annenberg’s large Zellerbach Theater was near full with a diverse crowd and there was, indeed, a sense of dance and music occasion as Morris performs his works with live musical accompaniment, a rarity in concert dance programs. The dancer – musician synergy is an integral element of Morris’ choreographic aesthetic.

“Pacific” (choreographed in 2015) is scored to Harrison’s ‘Trio for Violin, Cello & Piano’ for nine dancers, dressed in with flowing long skirts designed by Martin Pakledinaz. The dance unfolds with a male trio moving in swirling balletic patterns, sweeping over the stage. Then the quartet of women enter with phrases that sharply shift to the percussive drive of the piano.

Duets with partners in classic sculpture bodylocks. Clusters with dancers flying off in lyrically feral leaps. Domingo Estrada particularly eloquent aerials. The evocative ending bodies in staggered lines rocking back and forth evoking ocean tides. The overall simplicity and mystique reminiscent of the mid-century postmodern concert dance. Perhaps a way for Morris prompt equal attention Harrison’s music and the stellar chamber musicians, violinist Nicholas Travani, cellist Alan Richardson and pianist Colin Fowler.

Violinist Rachel Shapiro and violist Caitlin Lynch join Richardson (cello) and Travani (violin). Morris more complex “Mosaic and United” (chor. 1993), followed. It is scored to the wily borderless music by Henry Cowell- ‘String Quartet no. 3, Mosaic I-II-III-IV-V-III-I; String Quartet No. 4, United, I-II-IIII-IV-V.’ The quintet of dancers- Sam Black, Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Dallas McMurray, Noah Vinson- costumed Isaac Mizrahi’s fab bright color dance togs, some ala commedia d’ el arte performers. Yet, there is also a tragicomic edge as well.

Cowell’s dense percussive piano dissonance and glissando string effects, for instance, never cloy, rather they interlock appear and vanish. The animation can look like movement delirium, dancing amok or can even freeze ala the Road Runner. This piece is exemplar of how Morris characterizes music devoid of any deliberate narrative. It is adventurous, witty, cryptic, poetic and sound reflective movement.

Next, Morris’ “Three Preludes” (chor. 1992) to Gershwin’s piano music with soloist Lauren Lynch in black trousers, vest, dance spats and white gloves was right out of the 30s. My colleague Brenda Dixon Gottschild dubbed her Hepburn-esque.

The framework of quixotic showdance- soft tap and chasses, petit jetes ala Astaire & Rogers, for instance, are contrasted with introspective moments and even somberness. Fowler, meanwhile, playing vivid, Gershwin, the tempos so crystalized. Lynch and Fowler inside the indelible Gershwin motifs. Both captivate with distinct interpretive artistry.

Lou Harrison’s music without doubt ignites Morris’ choreographic imagination and the composer’s ‘Gran Duo’ (chor. 1993) is a MMDG&ME classic. The sections- Prelude/Stampede/A Round/Polka are simultaneously witty, earthy, tribal and cryptic. Susan Ruddle’s raw silk tunics and peplum skirts on the dancers add to its primal atmosphere. Morris has characterized Harrison’s music for Gran Duo as something “that sounds very ancient to me, I want to make of a dance that was evocative, a little mysterious and that maybe people had been doing it for hundreds of years.”

The dancers lock into wide plie squared off with arms flexed, it recalls ancient Aztec imagery. They carve out communal canon lines that form and bust up. The ‘Polka’ finale (the original inspiration, Morris has stated) is evocative of a Dionysian ritual. It is a raucous percussive movement vortex. The troupe pulse with percussive hand and arm gestures that hands writing Sanskrit on air as 14 bodies move in fast shifting patterns. All along Colin Fowler and Nicholas Tavani engulfing the stage with Harrison’s intense musical dervish. The thrilling denouement had everyone on their feet joining in the clamor with lusty applause.

Morris’s residency this month has included an ambitious line-up of arts outreach projects including performances with area youth groups and masterclasses for dance students at the University of Pennsylvania. Morris also orchestrating the Philadelphia Dance for PD® Symposium, a first-ever event including a workshop, class and film screening, all dedicated to exploring the impact of dance, music and community on the lives of people

Philadelphia ,
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.