Mark Morris Dance Group – Dances to American Music

by Ashabi Rich for the Dance Journal

As the Annenberg Center’s inaugural Artist-in-Residence, Mark Morris’ preeminent modern dance company made a triumphant return to Philadelphia after 14 years with Dances to American Music, a program set to works by American composers.

The solidity of the ocean, that is ever moving on any level at any time in its malleable depths, comes brimming on stage with its occupants in Pacific.  Set to the music of Lou Harrison, performed by Nicholas Tavani, violin, Alan Richardson, cello, and Colin Fowler, piano, the work opens with a vision of muscular, broad-shouldered, bare-chested men costumed in the most exquisite pleated skirts. The diaphanous material in water-colored blue and off-white, the ankle-length skirts move like a materialized, constant airflow over the dancers’ movements beneath them.  Designer Martin Pakledinaz’s’ costumes are a visual luxury; gorgeous waterfalls of blue and white on the men, women with coordinating tops and skirts in crimson and white and green and white. Delicate pleating allows the translucent material to fall, follow and lay on the bodies of these superb dance artists, providing a perfect complement to the often-mesmerizing effect of Morris’ rich movement signatures. These creations deserve entrance applause.

In Pacific, the evening’s first work, one might envision the dancers as merlads and mermaids, legs moving within the casing of their fabric covers. The diaphanous skirts float over but do not obliterate, the momentary sculptures in the arabesques, skirts free-falling like water from an object.  High-velocity pirouettes create small whirlpools.  After Pacific ended, it felt like a whole show had transpired, the audience giving the kind of applause most commonly heard at the end of an evening’s presentation.

Mosaic and United, performed to Henry Cowell’s String Quartet No. 3, Mosaic, I-II-III-IV-V-III-I; String quartet No.4, United, I-II-III-IV-V, has a modern eclectic feel where bold leaps seem suspended in air and grand pliés feature percussive heel strikes on the floor. Wearing designer Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes of loose silk bronze colored shirts, the matching pants had a singular stripe of muted contrasting color. The movements played with copying the stringed music of the Aeolus Quartet, Tavani, violin; Rachel Shapiro, violin; Caitlin Lynch, viola, Richardson, cello and the possibilities of movement to the music. The angles were vibrating sculptures, the vibrato of the music shown in trembling feet and hands. Lovely endings to each work elicited claps of appreciation and excited yelps from the audience.

Three Preludes to Gershwin’s Preludes for Piano was a study in syncopated movement with the exertion and timing of Cakewalk. Mizrahi’s Charlie Chaplinesque costume design on soloist Laurel Lynch silhouetted and mirrored Fowler’s honky-tonk piano accompaniment.

Whether it’s one person on stage, such as Laurel Lynch performing solo in Three Preludes to Gershwin’s Preludes for Piano or two dancers or more, the stage seems comfortably full. There are no dead spots of flat energy partly due to the superb lighting. The concluding work Grand Duo, set to the music of Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, with Tavani on violin and Fowler on the piano has costume designer Susan Ruddie giving us a cross between updated chaps and new age loincloths that afford daring flashes of perfected glutei maximi. The entire work of this piece is a mesmerizing movement calling up a rodeo hoedown.  Dramatic spacing makes the work more exciting to see including good use of watching the dancers execute at intervals, with backs turned to the audience. Shadowy lighting increases the tension. The circular movement of some dancers in a corner of the stage add contrastive interest. Lighting Designer Michael Chybowski gives us a perfectly sublime moment at the end of Grand Duo’s Polka

Formed thirty-eight years ago, Morris has created over 150 works for MMDG.  A prolific laureate artist, Morris is a Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation and holds 11 honorary doctorates.  Added to this now is his being the inaugural artist-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center.  Dedication and experience as a music conductor, dancer, director, and choreographer, has rewarded society with an exhilarating and comprehensive translation of musical phrasing, in count and expression, transmuted into dance movement.  The poses and fine points seen in these male dancers are most often seen in the feminine expression of dance movement, i.e., an essence of delicate flourish and refinement that comes with feeling and intense work. It’s about the energy and its outward manifestation, that outward something.

A choreographic tour de force, Morris loosens us from the gravitational pull of our everyday orbit and startlingly zooms us into extra and intraterrestrial play. How one mind contains all that creativity is the question. Weigh that with the realization that inspiration has been knowledgeably translated into the artful use of the mediums of dance, music, lighting, and costumes indicating that critical knowledge of the skilled people manifesting each medium is masterfully combined to successfully present the vision to a critical audience. Happily, we do have it all in this dance company and music ensemble.

One can hear the philosophically-oriented statement, “He always has an angle, “and take that as a critically negative assessment. But Morris’ use of angles in MMDG in the mathematical sense are noticeably thoughtful, refreshing, surprising and brilliantly planned. He has envisioned and worked the stage from all angles, including that of the audience member. It’s exciting to watch the formations within Grand Duo and Pacific. Timing, known to be of the essence, manifests within physical movement such that timing, applied force and directionality change energy, precision, and perception. Their ample manifested use of these concepts complements the work, the audience’s viewing pleasure, and those precious dancers. Everyone on stage can be seen in an optimum way. Unison timing is impeccable. Counterpoint timing is impeccable. Flourishes and short interjections are married to musical phrasing; and on that note, let it be said that the musical ensembles, inclusive of Aeolus Quartet, are worth their weight in gold. This is an ensemble company of riches, each member a treasure, each work a treasure and Morris surely is an artistic Mansa Musa.

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