Forget the funny stuff, the gender-bending and the men in drag. As it heads into its 22nd year of performance, the Mark Morris Dance Group is growing up. Not showing its age, mind you – just getting a little more serious about the whole thing. And if choreographer Morris himself, the one-time wunderkind of American dance, is remembered for anything – and he assuredly will be – let it be Violet Cavern, an arresting abstract work set to a remarkable score by the jazz trio, The Bad Plus. If there is such a thing as classical jazz, that’s what pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King compose. The music for Violet Cavern, played live by the composers, is Stravinsky by way of Kurt Cobain, with a dash of Erik Satie and it’s a knockout.
This is, of course, about the dance and not the music and yet, with Morris, it is difficult to separate the two. In Violet Cavern it’s impossible. Every nuance of the music is made visible by the dancers, exceeding what one thought it was possible for the human body to do. These superbly trained dancers slither across the floor, roll offstage in a single line and twirl like dervishes while a backdrop of black etched squares turns from the violet of the title to black, yellow, red, white, aquamarine and, near the end, the entire spectrum. Stephen Hendee’s set, the hanging squares with the spotlights visible at the side, and Michael Cybowski’s lighting design set off the fifteen dancers, almost the entire troupe, dressed simply in sweats and workout clothes.
It’s all of a piece. In the dirge-like beginning, against the violet squares, the dance is slow, often a study in stillness. Morris makes much use of the prone body, with a slowly raised arm or leg in this work. The squares turn red and the dance turns hot. Then black and it’s as jazzy as you please. This is a masterwork by a master choreographer in his prime and a beaming Morris joined his dancers and the musicians onstage for numerous, well-deserved curtain calls.
Unfortunately, the first half of the program, the 1993 Mosaic and United, was less exciting. Set to two string quartets by Henry Cowell, it is a long piece, set on five dancers. While the Morris troupe is a true ensemble, with no stars, Joe Bowie and Lauren Grant stood out from the crowd. The dancers, in their multi-colored Isaac Mizrachi costumes, pair up, solo and all dance together, clustering, breaking apart and circling one another. Morris has raised walking to a high art and there is a great deal of simple walking in this piece, as well as his trademark stillness, with the dancers’ extremities vibrating like aspen leaves as they lie on the floor. He also uses V forms, in the legs of dancers lying prone or the arms when they are standing.
But a little of this goes a long way and Cowell’s music is a lot harder to listen to than The Bad Plus.