Mark Morris Dance Group performs at George Mason Center for the Arts

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

The exquisite dancing on Saturday at George Mason University began as a collaboration among three of the nation's leading musicians: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax -- and choreographer Mark Morris.

Wait -- can a maker of dances rightly be considered a musician? In Morris's case, absolutely. Morris has as sophisticated an ear for melodic line, phrasing and tone as the finest instrumental soloist. Where other musicians work with notes on a staff or fingers on a keyboard, Morris's instrument happens to be the human body moving across a stage. It's sound as flesh, at least in part. His choreography creates human drama and visual textures, as well as the rhythmic punch and complexities of the musical virtuoso.

This weekend's program of the Mark Morris Dance Group made the point of its director's musicianship especially persuasively, given the unusual scores he chose: a Beethoven sonata, a Schumann quintet and -- the roiling ocean between two safer shores -- Charles Ives's Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano.

It was an evening bounded on either end by formal structure and order, beginning with the contemplative "Visitation," accompanied by Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 in C, and ending with the exhilarating "V," set to Schumann's Quintet in E-flat for piano and strings.

In the middle was "Empire Garden," swirling in Ives's unfathomable depths and suggestions of turmoil. There are shards, but not the whole vessel. Where were the answers in this dance that was part carnival, part shattered kaleidoscope? They must be lodged somewhere in the third or fourth viewing of it, but even then I'm guessing this intriguing work would offer only deeper mysteries.

And the connection to Ma and Ax? They didn't perform at George Mason's Center for the Arts, where a collection of excellent live musicians accompanied the entire evening. But they had played at the premieres of "Visitation" and "Empire Garden" last summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where Ma, Ax and Morris are frequent partners. They suggested that Morris choreograph one of the Beethoven sonatas; he agreed, if they would perform the Ives trio.

It was a good bargain.

The Ives is a fiendishly difficult work, with its disjointed melodies and collisions. In the bustling second movement, labeled TSIAJ ("this scherzo is a joke"), scraps of folk songs poke through: "My Old Kentucky Home," "Sailor's Hornpipe." Squeak, rumble, groan, and suddenly, Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay! And back to the squeaking and rumbling. Apparently, Ives was reflecting on his days at Yale; he completed the trio in 1911 and revised it a few years later, at the dawn of World War I. There is a tipsy, dizzy energy along with a loss of innocence, and a grown-up's melancholy.

Morris takes it all on, the jittery play and the darkness. The cast of 15 dancers is costumed by Elizabeth Kurtzman in cartoonishly bright almost-uniforms. Solids mix with bold, chunky patterns -- cubism meets the marching band. They're true to the disorienting music: familiar but broken, scattered.

The dancing is like that, too: bits of soft-shoe, sideways crab walks. Visions of soapbox speechifying. One dancer rolls across the stage with a gaping, contorted mouth. A sense of foreboding grows. Is the empire of the title really a garden after all, or growth gone amok -- a jungle? If Ives wasn't thinking of the clash of empires during his time, it seems Morris is, and the connection to today's changing world order feels real. The human disruption, the calamities without solutions. At Ives's heartbreaking anticlimax, Morris gives us a long, disturbing look at a motionless tableau, every one of his dancers in partial collapse.

What a discovery it was to see this music, and to hear it exquisitely played by Jesse Mills on violin, Wolfram Koessel on cello and Colin Fowler on piano.

"Visitation," the Beethoven piece, drew on yearning and companionship, with a sweet, consoling effect. "V," from 2001, is all about the shimmering resolution of apparent contradictions: vertical and horizontal planes of action, high energy and low. The blues and greens of the costumes are easy on the eye. Coming after "Empire Garden," it was like immersion in a cool pool. Morris knows to follow trouble with peace. But he also knows we need to see both.

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