By Mae G. Banner
Morris Dance Group
The Egg, May 17
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.
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
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.
Duo is Morris at his inexplicable, inevitable best. I
felt I could dive into this dance and drown, happily.