Impressions of Mark Morris Dance Group

Impressions of Mark Morris Dance Group

Published on April 29, 2015
Photo: Ken Friedman

MMDG Ushers in Spring at BAM

B Program

For complete program notes, click here.

Spring has sprung — if not in the city at large, then at BAM where the Mark Morris Dance Group took the stage for a five-day run showcasing seven works. On the B program, spring arrives in the form of sunshiny gaiety (Crosswalk), a turbulent thunderstorm between lovers (Jenn and Spencer), and Morris' interpretation of “Rite of Spring” (Spring, Spring, Spring).

Morris is lauded for being a musical choreographer (he also conducts), which means that, often, sound and movement wrap so tightly around each other to become indistinguishable. Live music (a must for Morris) accompanies each piece, and while the ensembles are tiny — two duos comprised of members from the MMDG Music Ensemble and the Bad Plus, a jazz trio known for putting funky spins on classics — the players tease pathos and playfulness from each note.

Members of Mark Morris Dance Group in bright orange costumes link at the elbows and walk across the stage
Crosswalk; Photo: Elaine Mayson London

The three pieces, while varying in tenor and inspiration, act as a demonstration for Morris' choreographic ethos. In Crosswalk, a piece for 11 to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Grand Duo Concertant,” preppy dancers amble, skip, and somersault, their tight spatial groupings evoking fastidiously planted and pruned flower beds. Two codependent lovers make up and break up in Jenn and Spencer set to Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano.” When she pitches over, he catches her but backs away while she, abandoned but not alone, writhes and convulses. Spring, Spring, Spring unfolds like an extended Gap commercial evoking 60s’ flower power: Attired in brightly hued jeans and dip-dyed sundresses you may covet for yourself, attractive young people parade in ritualistic circles and pop their hips mod-style. The real treat of Spring, Spring, Spring resides in the Bad Plus' reworking of Stravinsky's classic score in which the dissonance and angularity are filtered through a distinctly groovy vibe.

Two men on their hands and knees while their female partners lay on them back-to-back.
Spring, Spring, Spring; Photo: Ken Friedman

Physical wit abounds. Morris treats the body as a two-dimensional shape, often positioning it in a profile or frontal facing. As a result, this paper-doll construction becomes a place for puns and quips. Crosswalk features a line of men preening like bathing beauties, one arm crooked and swishing over their heads. Its humor — light, inoffensive — lies in reinvigorating a well-worn trope with an unexpected gender switch. Morris winks at the potential for bacchanalian wildness in Spring, Spring, Spring. Jumps pulse with pelvic thrusts and women wrap both legs around their squatting male partners. These pagans, though, have been cleaned up and are ready to meet Grandma.

Morris’ works may be abstract, but they are fully understandable. Steps repeat, shapes reiterate, and canons — so very many canons — replay again and again. Like an advertisement straight from Madison Avenue, he meticulously architects space and miniaturizes the kinesphere to manage our experience: We look where we’re supposed to look and see what we’re supposed to see.

Three women in orange dresses cluster around a man, one pulls his arm while looking intently at him
Crosswalk; Photo: Elaine Mayson London

The company dancers perform as expected, with seasoned strength and facility. Marks are hits, toes are crisply pointed, and the group resembles a chorus from a long-running Broadway show. Yet, their cool containment and consummate professionalism soon bores as they start to seem like robots: flawlessly engineered to impersonate but not embody humanness.

It's all pleasant enough, but as the evening goes on without risk or passion or anything requiring more than polite enthusiasm from us, it starts to feel as if the show were designed by a corporation. Everything mysterious and potentially divisive has been sanded away, and the result is clean blandness that appeals to the widest swath of people possible. Without much rejiggering, it’s easy to picture these pieces being co-opted by big businesses to sell us things — a dancing spring reimagined as a commodity.

Program Notes:

Music by Carl Maria von Weber, “Grand Duo Concertant,” for clarinet and piano
Music Performance by Todd Palmer (clarinet) and Colin Fowler (piano)
Costume Design by Elizabeth Kurtzman
Lighting Design by Michael Chybowski
Dance Performance by Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson

“Jenn and Spencer”
Music by Henry Cowell, “Suite for Violin and Piano”
Music Performance by Georgy Valtchev and Colin Fowler
Costume Design by Stephanie Sleeper
Lighting Design by Michael Chybowski
Dance Performance by Sam Black and Jenn Weddel

“Spring, Spring, Spring”
Music by Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Arranged by The Bad Plus
Music Performance by The Bad Plus
Costume Design by Elizabeth Kurtzman
Lighting Design by Philip Watson
Dance Performance by Sam Black, Rita Donahue, Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martonara, Dallas McMurray, Maile Okamura, Brandon Randolph, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Michelle Yard


Related Features

More from this Author