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  • Writer's pictureladiesvoices

Mark Morris Dance Group, Aug 9 2023

Stephanie and I saw the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Joyce Theater on August 9, 2023. I've seen MMDG probably fifteen to twenty times and always find his choreography and their dancing full of expression, intellect, stagecraft, and wit. The program had four pieces: two stage premieres, one piece I had seen at BAM years ago and loved, and a piece from 1980.

The first piece was a stage premiere, "Tempus Perfectum," a piece for four dancers (two men, two women) set to Brahms's Sixteen Waltzes, opus 39. The piano was played by Colin Fowler, the music director of MMDG. He played beautifully, I was especially struck by how artfully he brought out the inner voices. Morris's work often makes me listen to the music in a different way - - he's such a profoundly musical choreographer, I imagine he'd be happy to hear that.

The piece opened with a female solo that had a strong Isadora Duncan vibe, lots of leaping and grand, sweeping use of the arms. The first movements were a series of solos which always ended with the next soloist coming onstage, sharing the last moments with the outgoing dancer, then starting their solo. This gave a nice momentum to the piece as a whole and (best of all) prevented the audience from applauding between movements. The first ensemble movement was a cheeky trio about a third of the way through. Morris gave the two men a tender duet later on, that was touching. This was maybe my favorite piece in the program, it was beautifully made.

The second piece was the one I had seen before, at BAM in 2004. It was "All Fours," a piece for twelve dancers, eight in the ensemble and four soloists (an even split of men and women in each). It was set to Bartók's fourth string quartet. This is my favorite string quartet and one of my favorite pieces of music ever.

The first time I saw "All Fours" I was living with my first New York roommate, Greg Beaver. Greg was the cellist in the Chiara String Quartet. I'm not sure I'd heard them play the Bartók 4th at this point but had the overwhelming pleasure of hearing them play it at least three times in concert. Greg was curious to hear about a dance piece done to the Bartók and I gave him a full report the next day. I told him about the dancing and then got to the music:

ME: The performance was just fine but I felt like it didn't quite gel. There was something missing, it didn't have that extra something I needed.

GREG: Who was the quartet?

ME: It was four players from the Mark Morris chamber ensemble.

GREG: [laughs] Then that's the problem. They're not a quartet, they're four people who have been put together to play this piece. A string quartet is not two violinists, a violist, and a cellist - - a string quartet is four people who play together all the time, and that's all they do.

In the performance Stephanie and I saw they DID have what Greg would certify as a string quartet, the Aeolus Quartet. The first movement was a little loose bordering on sloppy, which worried me. I think it was a problem of warming up and/or getting focused because the other four movements were great.

There were a few specific moments in the dancing that I remembered from 2004. I was curious to see if they were as I remembered and was happy/relieved to see that they were. Let me take this opportunity to say that the dancers in MMDG are incredibly talented. Their precision, skill, and expressiveness are second to none. And call me a total skeevmeister, but it's a thrill to see those glorious bodies in movement on the stage. I'm not just talking about the men - - the sexiest member of the ensemble was Courtney Lopes. She was one of the sexiest people I've seen in my life.

The lighting in this piece was way too active and prominent, it drove me a little nutty. I like it when the lighting behaves itself and sits still in a dance performance - - maybe a change between movements but definitely not 6-10 precisely timed lighting changes like we had in this piece. I'm sure Morris collaborated very closely with designer Nicole Pearce (Stephanie said there are clearly no accidents in his pieces, nothing left up in the air) but I didn't care for it. Stephanie saw the lighting as adding to the general mood or story, enhancing the dark, sometimes violent tone of the music - - she saw those moments as being about the Covid virus (the ensemble, in black and gray) and the people trying to live through it (the soloists, in white). I like that story, let's go with that! It made me feel better about the lighting.

Would you please allow me a brief interlude? Stephanie and I met for a drink before the show, at a bar/restaurant a couple blocks away. We walked behind two guys on our way to the theater and one of them was wearing a beautiful shirt, a white short sleeved linen shirt with a camp collar, embroidered with flowers on the sleeves and the lower right corner of the back. Stephanie and I were both crazy for this shirt and wanted one for ourselves. I would have stopped him and asked him where he got it but he was walking too fast, he got away from us.

Stephanie predicted that they were also going to the MMDG performance and sure enough, they were! They were sitting across from us, on the other side of the theater, so during intermission I tracked him down and asked where he got the shirt. I was sure he'd say at a boutique in Denver or similar but was pleasantly surprised that it was from Abercrombie! I bought one online the next day. I had a twinge of sticker shock at the $80 price, but hey, I make pretty good money, I like to buy at least one new shirt each summer, and I know myself well enough to know I would spend the next thirty years wishing I had bought that shirt if I didn't buy it.

The second half started with the other new piece, "A minor Dance," a piece for six dancers (three men, three women) set to the Bach Partita #3 in A minor, played beautifully by pianist Colin Fowler. I didn't find the choreography in general to be the most inspired but one moment was completely hypnotic, really one of the most striking things I've seen in a dance piece. Stephanie described it as a wheel - - picture three dancers standing next to each other holding hands. The dancer on the right placed their feet against the dancer in the middle and then leaned to the side, extending their arm and shifting their weight towards the floor, eventually laying on their side. This led to the dancer in the middle also shifting towards the right, towards the floor, and the dancer on the left taking over the center position. In the meantime another dancer took over the spot on the left. Over and over, slowly and smoothly, with the dancers continually moving into the starting position.

The final piece was a very early piece, "Castor and Pollux," from 1980 when Morris was 24. It's for eight dancers (four men, for women) and set to a recording of a piece with the same title by Harry Partch. I'd heard of Partch but wasn't familiar with his music. Stephanie gave me the 411 on him - - he was a renegade composer of the 40s, 50s, and 60s based in Oakland, California. She told me he built bizarre musical instruments, she described a percussion instrument that was as big as a room and the player would sit in the middle of it to play it. I read on Wikipedia that he wrote in his own invented harmonic system - - he split the 12-note Western scale into 43 unequal tones.

The piece we heard was for percussion, dazzling in its use of rhythm, pattern, and color. Clearly I need to dive deep into Partch, it was unlike anything I had heard before and very exciting. The piece opened with a female solo that seemed a little unformed, unresolved, a little too loose and goofy. But within three minutes the classic Mark Morris kicked in with many elements of his signature style and all of his usual precision, verve, and wit. I want to see more of his early work, this piece was really impressive.

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