Friday, March 27, 2009

Morris dance

The company performs Mark Morris's "V".

I can't really let the Mark Morris visit to Celebrity Series last week pass by without any comment at all, as it was so splendid. There were no premieres on the program, just three of Morris's greatest hits, but it was nice to bask in the glory of these once again.

And returning to past work is always rewarding in Mark's case because his dances tend to grow as they age, and sink into the company's bones, and the dancers better understand their emotional cues and meaning. And - although I know this is treason to many long-term Mark fans - the company has been improving over the years (although perhaps, as loyalists sometimes moan, the new personalities are not quite as memorable as the old). It used to be that audience members would say they could almost imagine themselves dancing Mark's work; nowadays nobody says that - the dancers are just too impressive. But they're still in a pleasing assortment of colors, shapes and sizes, there's a normal amount of meat on their bones, and Mark treats them with utter equanimity, regardless of size or gender (which remains a kind of slap in the face to ballet, and even ballet-influenced modernists like Balanchine). So the group's ethos seems to have survived its professionalization.

But back to last weekend. Of the three dances on the program, All Fours, set to Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4, had deepened the most since we last saw it. Or at least its central passage - a Cheeveresque short story about two happy young men who may be more in love with each other than with their women - had become a wonderfully pointed and equivocal drama in the hands of Craig Biesecker, Bradon McDonald, Elisa Clark and Julie Worden. (And the musical performance, by Morris's own traveling ensemble, was superb.) Meanwhile Bedtime, the oldest piece on offer, revealed few new depths - it was wonderful the first time around - but was its usual evocative self, pulling together three Schubert lieder to trace the boundary between dream and death.

And then there's V, to my mind one of the greatest of Mark's works, and certainly one of the most emotionally overwhelming. Set to the wonderful Schumann Quintet in E-Flat - again performed brilliantly here - it's a piece poised between joyous welcome and something close to despair: for long periods the dancers literally crawl across the stage, only rising to their feet when they reach the other side. But rebirth is the piece's real theme, and that in Morris always means human contact, and here it takes the form of the hug, with the dancers spreading their arms wide in, yes, a "v," to each other and to us. The final moments are like an extrapolation and complication of the conclusion of L'Allegro, with dancers dashing across the stage and into each others' arms in a beautiful, living frieze of human connection. One of Mark's great gifts is his ability to treat joy seriously, as seriously as other artists treat anguish; and this is probably what makes him one of our era's great civilized, and civilizing, pleasures.

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