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Sometimes playful: Mark Morris Dance Group.

Tragedy and Comedy Tonight

By Lynn Hasselbarth

Mark Morris Dance Group

The Egg, Nov. 16

There is nothing uncomfortable about the Mark Morris Dance Group. They are as versatile and appropriate as clean linens, sensible shoes or a black cocktail dress. With its reputation for playful humor and live musical accompaniment, the company returned to the Egg on Friday night providing an experience that was delightfully appealing to all the senses.

Friday evening’s performance opened with The Argument, showcasing three mature couples in various stages of romantic drama. Predictable evening attire of knee-length black velvet dresses and crisp collared shirts and slacks seemed initially uninteresting. That is, until the first strike of discontent, brought on by a clenched fist. As the movement shifted between fluid waltz and panicked tango, one seemed to be observing the anxiety and perfectionism behind the pearls and crystal of an overheated dinner party.

The three male dancers were rather aloof and secondary to the more complex and striking qualities of their partners. Julie Worden rose above the other dancers both in her statuesque frame and the ferocity of her limps and deliberate glare. Less physically impressive was Maile Okamura, whose more subtle charm was contradicted by quick and defensive arm gestures with her partner Craig Biesecker. Michelle Yard added gravity and continuity to the piece with a more moderate interpretation of emotional angst.

Viewers were again taken behind the scenes with the full-ensemble piece Looky, in which Morris showcased a visual narrative of sterile museum culture and its quirky patrons. Individuals, couples and an apparent tour group emerged dressed in mismatched outfits with black-and-white patterns designed by Isaac Mizrahi. The disorderliness of the crowd was echoed by a recorded track of disklavier music—rambling piano scales and uncoordinated rhythms drawn from a digital player piano.

The dancers first observe art, then imitate art and finally become art, as they reenacted what the audience assumes is one of the paintings displayed in the museum. Morris brought to life a typical western-style saloon scene, complete with drunken cowboys and a poker game that ends in slow-motion bar fight. The sheer entertainment and chaotic improvisation of the piece brings to mind the exaggerated theatrics of a 1920s vaudeville act, with the uncertain distinction between tragedy and comedy, villain and hero.

With relief, the performance returned to a controlled reality with a more linear piece set to Bach’s Italian Concerto in F-major. A duet of Dallas McMurray and Julie Worden opened the piece, introducing sleek elongated movements reminiscent of George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments. However, the connection to one of Morris’ mentors ended with a series of humorous gestures that appear suddenly amid the sobriety of the piece.

Two dancers stood side by side, knees bent with arms outstretched, as if resting comfortably on a table. Robotic mime movement suggested each dancer reaching for a book on a high shelf, manually lifting the extended elbow with the opposite hand only to abandon the object and lazily sweep both hands across one hip. While Morris is noted for being extremely witty himself, he admits that laughter is often drawn from the audience in places where it wasn’t necessarily intended.

The humor of the first pieces gave way to the dramatic closing epic, Grande Duo (1993). Dancers in satin costumes in deep shades of green, mahogany and teal were cast in shadows across the dimly lit stage. A horizontal panel of light illuminated the two outstretched fingers of each dancer, which bent and waved as if desperately determining the direction of the wind.

While much of the piece was performed in unison, the gathering of heaving bodies separated into two distinct groups, enacting what seemed to be a medieval battle. Through a call and response of violent gestures, the two clans mirrored each other as each reflected their own grievances. An extremely satisfying resolution was achieved with dancers’ limbs coordinated in a circle of praise or mourning—with the audience left to decide the meaning.

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