Mark Morris: A Balance of Stillness and Razzmatazz

Mark Morris dancers in a Schubertian
Mark Morris dancers in a Schubertian "Rock of Ages." (By Susana Millman -- Mark Morris Dance Group)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 13, 2006

Dancing itself was the subject of the Mark Morris Dance Group program this weekend at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.

In his 25 years as head of one of the most acclaimed modern dance companies in the world, Morris has worked on both grand and intimate scales, creating witty romps full of naughty bits and magnificent abstractions that spring from musical masterpieces. But Friday's program had a deeply personal feel, not only because Morris himself danced -- an increasingly rare event -- but because the works delved into the power of dancing to bridge the gap between alone and abyss.

The program opened with the equivalent of a fireworks display in "From Old Seville," a flamenco-inspired gem in which Morris, who turns 50 this year, flaunts both his heel-drilling footwork and his funny bone. We're in a smoke-filled nightclub, where Morris and Lauren Grant meet over a wine bottle and hit the dance floor hard. (They dance to a recording of Manuel Requiebros singing "A Esa Mujer," with a heart that bleeds.)

Their dancing is furious, all hot emotions and even hotter castanets. Their feet fly at hummingbird speed, but truly, this dance was all in the castanets, rolling and clacking like chattering teeth. At first, I thought the dancers were merely miming the fingering to a castanet soundtrack -- but no, Morris and Grant's finger technique was as skilled as their footwork.

What's funny is the matchup between the great, round but light-footed Morris (he studied flamenco in Spain as a youth) and tiny, aggressive Grant. Funnier still is the nonchalant way they pause for more wine and then dive back into the dance. Morris keeps leaving Grant for the bottle -- and possibly for the bartender, too. But when she yanks him back to the dance floor, they are an exquisitely matched pair. The laughs, though, stop abruptly: When the dancing ends, Morris seems to be saying, all that's left is booze and confusion.

Created nearly 10 years apart, "Rock of Ages" (2004) and "Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight" (1995), which followed "From Old Seville," felt like soul mates. Both drew the audience into a soft-focus world of mystery and poetry, and both underscored the yearning tones in the music of composers who died while only in their thirties: Franz Schubert and Stephen Foster.

The two works also emphasized the gifts of consolation and uplift that a community -- specifically a dancing community -- offers. Schubert wrote his Piano Trio in E-flat as he was ill and dying, and in the Adagio section that accompanies "Rock of Ages," one hears a haunting lullaby, a lament for lost time and, perhaps, a reaching out for salvation.

Certainly Morris must have heard this plea for deliverance, in giving the work its title. The MMDG Music Ensemble's Yosuke Kawasaki, Wolfram Koessel and Steven Beck played the piece with luminous restraint. (The ensemble accompanied all the works except the first -- live music being common for Morris performances, but lamentably rare for other dance companies.)

The dancing largely kept out of the music's way. It was quiet, based on stillness and the deft turn of the head (as if listening to a faraway summons) or the extension of an arm. What was most moving in this work was the way the four women -- Amber Darragh, Fairfax native Rita Donahue, Julie Worden and Michelle Yard -- interacted, tuning into and sustaining one another, and the way the movement beautifully expressed this intuitive connection.

There was a more complete, overt sense of community in "Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight," a series of dances to Foster's more romantic songs (the title tune as well as "Beautiful Dreamer," "Linger in Blissful Repose" and "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming," among others). This was not the "Camptown Races" Foster, but the parlor song Foster, crooning about love and loss. Although some segments had a more upbeat, folksy air, there were threads of regret and sadness woven in, and a sense that in dancing with a partner, one can brush the shadows away for a while.

Perhaps because of the gentle, wistful air of those pieces, the program's last work, "Rhymes With Silver," felt long. The two preceding works lulled us into a meditative state, and Lou Harrison's intricate composition with its richly embroidered dynamics furthered the plunge into abstract dreaminess. Its inclusion was also curious because this work has been performed here several times in the past. Particularly on an anniversary tour, one would expect a broader look at this company's vast repertoire.

Still, "Rhymes" offers plenty of rewards, benefiting from expansive performances from five musicians, whose sound felt like a full orchestra. Howard Hodgkin's backdrop of thick, finger-painting lines of blood-red and green is an exciting foil for dancing that is small-scale and delicate. I have seen this work numerous times, but this night, for the first time, it struck me as a spell wrought by dancer Bradon McDonald, who performs the role that Morris himself used to dance.

He has one long, unforgettable solo, where he is in constant motion, seemingly desperate for attention from another dancer who stands stock-still and ignores McDonald until he falls to the ground. McDonald appears again in the finale, in the midst of the full cast but doing a very separate thing. Now he is the one standing still, moving only his hands, swishing them around in lines that echo the waves of paint in the backdrop, as if he were conjuring up the whole communal gathering. As if it were his solace for loneliness.

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