Whelm, Mark Morris Dance Company
When Mark Morris Dance Group passes through the area, every year or so, Ionarts is there. The group's latest appearance, on Friday night at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, was a typical mixture of joy and darkness. If there was not a stand-out work this time around, like the unforgettable Socrates in 2013, the program was varied and well-rounded.
The most memorable work was the terse and mysteriously somber Whelm, premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music last April. The action unfolds in Hell, or in some other murky, chthonic locale, with a woman in a black mourning veil interacting with three spirits, all in black and hoods (costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman). The dancers moved in sync with the snowy steps of Debussy's Des pas sur la neige (Préludes, Book 1, no. 6) at the outset, while the veiled woman seemed to fight against the other three in the more frenetic middle section, set to the same composoer's Étude pour les notes répétées, played by the company's intrepid pianist, Colin Fowler. In the final section, set to Debussy's prelude La cathédrale engloutie, the dancers seemed more like tidal forces, rolling toward the front of the stage and then ebbing backward.
Cargo, premiered at Tanglewood in 2005, began in silence, with the dancers like a tribe of apish hominids gingerly approaching a pole placed on the ground at center stage. The pole becomes a cherished talisman for the dancers, serving as spear-like weapon, unifying groups of dancers who hold on to it, and carrying the limp bodies of dancers taken as prey -- seeming to fit with the South Pacific "cargo cults" mentioned as the inspiration in Morris's program note. The music is Darius Milhaud's La Création du Monde, heard here in the composer's later reduction of the score for piano and string quartet. Although you miss the saxophone and drums in this version, the jazzy overtones are still clear, used by Milhaud to accompany the ballet on an African creation legend. Here the story is more a comic counterpart to the tribal gestures of The Rite of Spring, with the dancers costumed in white underwear (costumes by Katharine McDowell).
Sarah Kaufman, The colorful restraint of the Mark Morris Dance Group (Washington Post, February 22)