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Life Force
By Mae G. Banner

Mark Morris Dance Group
The Egg, May 17

Here’s what you need to know about Mark Morris: He wants to put on a good show. He sponges up music from the most ethereal to the most down-home sources, and rains down torrents of movement. Sometimes, you have to laugh; sometimes, you hold your breath in wonder; but it’s always a good show.

The nearly full house last Saturday at the Egg in Albany cheered loudest for Resurrection, the most brashly “showbiz” of the four dances on the wonderfully varied program by the Mark Morris Dance Group. One of Morris’s newest dances (it premiered last July at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.), Resurrection is set to Richard Rodgers’ “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a gangland ballet from the 1936 Broadway musical On Your Toes.

George Balanchine, no slouch as a showman, choreographed the original Slaughter, and regional audiences have seen it done at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by Suzanne Farrell and Robert LaFosse. With the utmost seriousness, Morris brings the slain ballerina and hoofer back to life, layering his own joke onto Balanchine’s.

The set and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi are gorgeous, but not in the usual sense. A car-wash curtain of plastic strips hangs from a garment rack. Lit in sparkling colors by Michael Chybowski, it serves as backdrop and as faux stage curtain through which Maile Okamura floats, her dark gray dress covered with silver stars. She bourrées across the stage, pursued by the hero, Shawn Gannon, in matching gray covered with crescent moons.

And then, she shoots him.

Their double death and resurrection take place amid an ensemble of a dozen dancers in Mizrahi’s dizzying array of tight black-and-white pantsuits, each sporting a different pattern of eye- popping checks or stripes. The dance is full of big-sell chorus moves, including high kicks performed by dancers lying on their backs in a Busby Berkeley-like circle.

In a final flourish, the ensemble lifts the hero and ballerina high for their dream duet in the sky. Danced to a recorded orchestral arrangement, Resurrection is quite the bonbon.

Going Away Party (1990), set to a recorded suite of songs by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, is more like chewy taffy washed down with beer. Three couples and Charlton Boyd as an unflappable odd-man-out step it up in square-dance figures to syncopated western swing, country blues, and tongue-in-cheek mournful tunes.

Dressed in polka dots, ruffles, fringed vests and cowboy boots, the couples strut and sashay, step to the center and step right back. Boyd is right in the middle, bending and bowing, alone, but undaunted, so that what seems comical also is touching.

Morris is a champion of live music, often performing with full symphony orchestras. At the Egg, he favored chamber music, which was vividly performed by his longtime accompanist Ethan Iverson on piano, and Michi Wiancko on violin. It was a treat to hear Iverson, since he recently left the Morris group to join David Douglas’ avant-garde jazz trio.

Iverson, in the orchestra pit, played with the requisite flair in the opening dance, Canonic 3/4 Studies (1982), to Harriet Cavalli’s arrangement of piano waltzes by various composers. Made as a template for Morris’ New Love Song Waltzes to Brahms, Canonic has become a favorite of Morris’s fans and is revived every few years.

Nine dancers in black-and-white practice clothes float and spin with goofy intensity in a series of vignettes that begin as comical clichés of ballet class, but soar into the realm of godlike humor.

A little off-balance, but always formal, curly-haired Bradon McDonald and seven fellow students execute arabesques, runs and spins with the passion of the dancers in Jules Feiffer’s cartoons. There is the double-woman catch; the unleashed runs by Marjorie Folkman, whom no one can catch, though they all try like Little League outfielders to find the right spot; and the five-person ensemble performing a set of lovely, nutty gestures that include one shoulder shrugging and one leg curling behind the other, all in precise musical canon.

Passion suffused the four movements of the final dance, Grand Duo (1993) to Lou Harrison’s “Grand Duo for Violin and Piano.” Morris suits the full ensemble dance to the primal rhythms and mystical beauty of Harrison’s music, which evokes the secret rites of an aboriginal society.

Fourteen dancers in jewel-colored loincloths or sarongs appear in near-darkness. Light falls on an upraised hand, really on two fingers twirling—a secret signal in an arcane language. More lights discover other hands that repeat the gesture. The group begins to move, slowly, deliberately, in a ritual full of portent. This is the Prelude.

The subsequent movements build steadily. Stampede features lively, flat- footed stepping and arms extended horizontally to form big frames. It escalates to leaps in place and headlong rushes, and then to a challenge dance by six against six with fencers’ feet and thrusting arms.

To seething music, the dancers turned their bodies and tilted the frames they shaped with their arms. They balanced on one leg and angled one arm acutely, so their whole bodies seemed to point. They coalesced into a circle that split into two smaller circles and then re-formed as the manic polka began. In this powerhouse finale, the dancers slapped their thighs and stamped out the relentless rhythm, moving faster with the sound of the violin, but maintaining their hieratic posture.

Grand Duo is Morris at his inexplicable, inevitable best. I felt I could dive into this dance and drown, happily.


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