California Literary Review

Dance Vine

Review: Mark Morris Dance Group

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March 25th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

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Petrichor. Photo by Brian Snyder.

In the last section of Mark Morris’ Festival Dance, one dancer picks up his partner and spins around so that her legs fly out with centrifugal force, and just when it seems he will put her down (she’s been up in the air for quite a while and the musical phrase is coming to a close), she hitches her arms more securely about him and they continue on. It’s a bit like someone who won’t stop talking though short of breath, too giddy to stop the flow of words.

Festival Dance, a new work with music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, is filled with joyous moments like this one. It begins with a couple, dancing playfully: they bounce each other up and down like ping pong balls; he crouches behind her to propel them both forward with quick, running steps. These idiosyncratic dances (and those of other couples) lead into a more sedate second movement, in which two dancers trying to reach each other weave in and out of lines formed by the rest. The tone of the final section is lighter: those lines make a reappearance, but here the dancers put aside some of the still austerity of the second movement as their steps become vivacious, imbued with brisk happiness.


Festival Dance. Photo by Richard Termine.

The other two pieces currently being performed in Brooklyn are new to New York audiences, though they premiered in Massachusetts last year. The first on the program, The Muir, is a meditation on love and loss set to an arrangement of Irish and Scottish lyrics by Beethoven. It is often humorous: the three men, all dressed in the same shirts and slacks, frequently seem amazingly moony and young; the sylphides-style softness of Romantic ballets is lightly mocked (it helps that the women are as solidly built as their male counterparts). Morris’ choreography at times corresponds to the lyrics — in the very funny “Sally in our alley” he has on dancer mime suiting up in his Sunday best — but he relies on such literalism sparingly. More often, he conveys the sense of the words with equally amusing dance steps: one of the best parts of the same section is when the dancer optimistically bounds across the stage in a series of exuberant pas de chat.

Morris balances his humor, both wry and broad, with more solemn notes. In a trio for the men, their vaguely melodramatic anguish is at the same time truly felt. A rowdy drinking song slides into the final, grief-stricken piece (“The lovely lass of Inverness” by Robert Burns). Here, the four remaining dancers often move in unison: yet as they walk in boxlike figures upon the floor, they seem to live alone.

The Muir. Photo by Richard Termine.

Petrichor is a piece for eight woman, choreographed to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ String Quartet No. 2. The dancers, dressed in short, sheer tunics, waft on and off the stage, bodies undulating in an odd sort of backwards swim stroke. Sometimes they seem to gather in swirling eddies, sometimes to lift conch shells to their ears to hear the sound of waves. Morris moves them about the space with such skill that it is difficult to see how one shape bleeds into another; and the moments when the dancers pause briefly (holding their right hands up — “but wait” — with one finger raised, or none, or more) are just as slippery.

This is perhaps the point. “Petrichor” is the smell of rain as it falls on dry earth — a fitting title for this work. Scents can stir up buried memories, but to try to recall a certain scent once it is gone is often futile: Morris’ Petrichor, too, is allusive and yet at the same time strangely elusive.

Petrichor. Photo by Brian Snyder.

MMDG continues its New York season through March 27th. To purchase tickets and to see the touring calender, visit markmorrisdancegroup.org.

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