April 18th, 2011

Mark Morris Dance Group

Mark Morris is one of the best-known and most innovative choreographers working today (he was mentioned in my review of the Metropolitan Opera’s Orfeo et Euridice) so when we heard that the Mark Morris Dance Group was coming to the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center in Brookfield April 9th, we had to get tickets, even knowing that it was on OddCon weekend.

We made good time driving from Madison back to the Milwaukee area and had time for dinner at Kopp’s before getting to the Wilson Center. The Center is located in the middle of a large plot of marshy wilderness preserve (Brookfield’s Mitchell Park, not to be confused with Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park, which has the famous Domes) off of Capitol Drive. We were surprised and pleased to hear spring peepers calling in the distance as we walked in from the parking lot.

The main auditorium is a modernistic hall with lots of blonde wood, good sightlines, and decent acoustics. The usual concert-hall chandelier is replaced by an arrangement of frosted-glass birds, illuminated from within. Amusingly, they change color as well, which gives them rather an unfortunate resemblance to Christmas-tree ornaments.

The Group performed four pieces. The first, “Italian Concerto” (all the dances were named for the music that accompanies them), music by Johann Sebastian Bach, was in three movements. Five dancers mixed and matched in the movements. Allegro was a very sprightly dance, in which I detected steps and movements from the classic hornpipe. Andante was a slower piece. I thought I observed an influence of tai chi chuan or something similar here, but that may have been partly influenced by the brightly colored yoga workout clothes the dancers wore. Presto was of course faster, and was playful, seeming to combine the actions of children on a playground with some 70’s disco dancing.

The second dance, “Going Away Party” was undoubtedly the most fun, and most accessible. Unlike the other pieces, which were accompanied by live musicians from the MMDG Music Ensemble, these dances were to music by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Seven dancers rang changes on the various themes (Playboy Theme; Yearning; My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You; Goin’ Away Party; Baby, That Sure Would Go Good; Milk Cow Blues; Crippled Turkey; and When You Leave Amarillo, Turn Out the Lights) attired in a mix of costumes that would represent what you would see on young people downtown Saturday night in someplace like Amarillo in the late 40’s/50’s. The dancing worked out to be inspired by Western Swing, as seen through the Technicolor lens of an MGM musical.

After intermission, the Group gave us “Excursions” which was the least successful piece on the program. Costumes were back to workout wear, and the dancing, set to movements IV, III, II, and I of Samuel Barber’s Excursions for the Piano (Op. 20), only seemed to be frenetic and pointless motion. There were efforts made at setting a scene or telling some event, but which went nowhere. In one movement, a square area was marked off on the stage. The dancers entered it, stooping, as though coming in under a tent flap, then assumed postures of distress, exhaustion or injury. Were they refugees? Prisoners? The sick? This was never made clear or the significance even suggested. In another, the dancer march determinedly around the stage, one by one falling out as though dead, until the march comes round to them again, whereupon they rise up and resume marching. Deeply symbolic of something, potentially, but we had no idea of what.

Just to show that there’s very little that is genuinely rational about art, the last piece “Grand Duo” (Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, by Lou Harrison) wasn’t actually a whole lot more structured than “Excursions”, yet we liked it much better. Perhaps it was that the piece just seemed much more joyous, or –more intentional? In the first section, Prelude, the dancers start out on a darkened stage. An intense beam of white light crosses above them. One by one they reach up, some of them managing to get a hand up into the light in a spiraling motion that resembled seedlings coming to the surface. The pale hands in the white light reminded me of the Egyptian lotus-bud hieroglyph, an impression reinforced by the men’s loincloth costumes and the classical outfits given the women. Stampede was an exercise in group motion, and A Round was a particularly good bit in which to study the dancer’s movements and Morris’ choreographic vocabulary as motions were taken up and passed around among the dancers. The last portion, Polka, was a thrilling, celebratory, ecstatic dance. Harrison’s atonal music was more like rapid rhythmic noise, but for this kind of fast, powerful, precise dancing, that’s really all you need. Polka ended the program on a high note, and drew a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd.
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