The skill of the great artist — whether a Michelangelo, a Mozart, a Mark Morris — is to fashion simplicity from complexity. From the finest marble and most elegant technique we’re given a Pieta so direct and honest it can make us cry. From a layered interweaving of musical constructs we hear melodies that sound like nature’s work.
Likewise, as audiences saw in the Mark Morris Dance Group’s annual performances at George Mason University on Friday and Saturday, the best of Morris’s works offer wholeness. The musical response is fluid and handled lightly. No distractions, rhythmic or otherwise, take us out of an unpredictable but effortless meeting of sound and movement. The dances simply feel right, to the eye, intellect and nervous system.
It takes rich resources to achieve this kind of purity. In its 35th year, Morris’s group boasts a seasoned Brooklyn-based operation that lets Morris do what he does best: create two to four premieres a year. (The group brought two new pieces to George Mason.) Morris is justly respected as a choreographer with a rare commitment to live music, and his dancers performed with the six-member MMDG Music Ensemble in the pit.
But the evening’s most engaging work was neither new nor accompanied by live music. It was “Resurrection,” from 2002, danced to a recording of Richard Rodgers’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a jazz ballet from the 1936 musical comedy “On Your Toes.” This was nothing like the fishnet-stockings version that George Balanchine created for the original musical, which ballet troupes still perform, with showgirls and gangsters. Morris’s dancers wore sweet flannel pajamas in graphic prints, and they bounced around with airy, childlike vigor.
The music’s wit, charm and martini glamour inspired Morris to delicious, delirious heights. Slinky hips echoed the va-va-voom suggestions, and Morris channeled Busby Berkeley as his dancers wheeled around in geometric formations, conjuring waves and starbursts. (It’s quite a trick to do this with a cast of only 14.)
It all worked as terrific abstract design, but music that funny and alive called for a story, and there was a clever bit of film-noir woven through with an exceptionally light, fine-tipped touch. Dancer Lauren Grant, a 20-year veteran and truly the luminous heart of the company, was perfectly clear and deadpan as the wronged woman who gets her man in the end. And through it all, there was shining simplicity, nothing embellished or hammed-up or overacted. Restraint reigned.
“Resurrection” opened the evening, and the other works suffered a bit in comparison. The sharpness of inspiration and sense of urgency weren’t as strong, though Morris’s great range was impressively on view. “Whelm,” for instance, was about as far from “Resurrection” as one could get. This dark piece for four dancers drew on the unease and mystery in Debussy’s “Etude pour les notes repetees” (“Study for Repeated Notes”), “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footprints in the Snow”) and “La Cathedrale engloutie” (“The Sunken Cathedral”). It was a technical feat for pianist Colin Fowler, but with the stage dimly lit, the dancers creeping slowly in black, and the music rumbling and deep-throated, a sense of laboriousness set in.
“Cargo,” with music by Darius Milhaud (“La Creation du monde”) and “The,” accompanied by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F arranged for piano, rounded out the evening with fleshly exuberance. “Cargo” explored every bit of acrobatic hanging one could do from a pole, and “The” celebrated love and fellowship, a frequent theme for Morris.
Both works were clever but somewhat insubstantial. When considered along with “Whelm,” they raised a troubling question: Is Morris confined by his fealty to live music and the chamber pieces available to his necessarily small group of musicians? Undoubtedly so. The richness and vast colors of bigger scores, against which his restraint and distilled simplicity can be so effective, aren’t available to him unless he makes the exception to go with recordings, as he did in “Resurrection.”
As much as I love live music, I value Morris’s creativity more. I can’t help but wonder what he might bring forth if his imagination were unbound by his policy.