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Abstract sadness and joy: Mark Morris Dance Group’s V.

Heart and Soul
By Mae G. Banner

Mark Morris Dance Group
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 10

It’s no surprise that Mark Morris’s elegaic V was seen as a mourner’s kaddish for the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The wholly abstract dance, set to Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E flat for piano and strings, premiered in October, 2001 in London, and was dedicated to the city of New York.

More telling, V is filled with images of dancers crawling laboriously, yet vigorously, to the thudding beat of a dirge as if they were groping their way out of the ruins. Two groups of dancers, seven in eye- stabbing cobalt blue and seven in pale celery green, complete these measured crawls in turn, approaching each other from opposite wings.

Yet, in its sadness, the dirge is life-affirming, literally uplifting. When a dancer in green meets the oncoming blue group at center stage, that dancer stands and walks onward, slowly. This pattern repeats in concert with the music—no, as another line of the music—so, one dancer after another crawls, reaches the center, rises in one smooth movement, and proceeds out of darkness into light.

This pattern is cropped at the perimeter of the stage, but we know it must be continuing out of sight, in the wings. It’s a rule, and, watching Morris’s sturdy dancers, we have learned the rule.

V, gloriously accompanied by a quintet of Tanglewood Music Center Fellows, was the heart-swelling final dance presented by the Mark Morris Dance Group last week at Jacob’s Pillow. The choreography looks inevitable, but still surprising. Morris builds coherence from all kinds of oppositions, as he does in many of his dances.

Dancers dive into each other’s arms lavishly. They know they will be carried, cared for. Blues and greens begin to partner each other, to swirl together in lines, circles, crosses, and escalating, unselfconscious ballet leaps and turns that magnify and exalt their bodies and our lives.

In the final moments, pairs of dancers run toward each other, meet, fling their arms out, and hug with abandon, as if they’ve found a dear one they thought was dead. It is an apotheosis. Whatever the work, Morris celebrates the music, the human body, the dance form, and the group. His dances may incorporate fleeting duets, but no one is anyone’s partner for long. He simply opens your heart to the nobility of a plain, strong, barefoot body, moving, with friends.

Ten dancers cavorted elegantly in A Lake (1991), danced to a recording of Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 2, the only work on the program that was not paired with live music. A Lake is full of reels and jeels and cartwheels, sometimes performed by couples who are mixed or matched by gender, because in Morris’s world, anyone can love anyone.

They dance to the flourishes of the horn, with skips and runs and even a slow leapfrog, as two men lift a third over a fourth who lies on the stage as if in dewy grass. When David Leventhal and Julie Worden danced a goat-like duet, I thought of a poetic image from the Passover Seder: “The mountains skipped like lambs, the hills like rams.”

Morris is a welcome constant at the Pillow; this is his 16th season. For the Pillow, he tends to revive older dances from his repertory of more than 100 works made since he founded the group in 1980. Last week, we saw My Party (1984) and A Spell (1993).

My Party, with Tanglewood Fellows playing Jean Francaix’s Trio in C, is what founding Morris dancer Tina Fehlandt would call a “galumpy” dance. Four barefoot couples (mixed and matched, again) hop, skip and jump with all the seriousness of six-year-olds at a birthday party, circling and kicking up their heels beneath a clothesline hung with perfectly round pastel-colored paper lanterns.

Three dancers move with lusty literalness in A Spell, set to madrigals of the 1600s and sung by soprano Eileen Clark, accompanied by guitar and violin. Bradon McDonald is Cupid, decked out in a brief chiffon toga and sporting a pair of stuffed cotton wings, like a child’s toy. It’s his job to bring together the indifferent lovers, Amber Darragh and Matthew Rose. He succeeds magnificently, kissing each of them up and down from lips to thighs. Since Cupid is invisible to mortals, this brawny shepherd and voluptuous maid are led to take to each other with strong, weighted gropes.

After much teasing and scampering, the two unite in an unexpectedly beautiful final pose, their bodies tilted and curved toward each other, their arms sweetly linked.

A Spell is funny, bawdy, and lovely, all at once. Thanks, Mark Morris, for your endless inventiveness, your boundless humanity. 

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