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Mark Morris Dance Group: 'V' Is for 'Visitation'

Empire Garden, Mark Morris Dance Group (photo by Gene Schiavone)
The historic snowstorms that hit the Washington area in February turned the year upside down in many ways, and not only for someone like me who teaches in a school during the day. In practical terms many performances were canceled this winter, and one of those was finally rescheduled on this past Saturday night at the George Mason University Center for the Arts. In general when the Mark Morris Dance Group comes to the area, we try to attend, even if it involves a long trip out to Fairfax and especially when the journey through the wilds of Virginia means the chance to see the local premieres of three new works by the prolific American choreographer. Rescheduling a touring performance four months later is not easy, especially for a choreographer like Morris, who insists on performing to live music, performed here, as always, by musicians who are associated with the troupe.

The first half consisted of a pair of short ballets premiered only last summer, during the Tanglewood Festival, and since taken on the road to London and other cities. Like the longer work on the second half, V (that's the Roman numeral for five), both are set to chamber music, and they reflect that more intimate type of music for fewer voices, something that was literally designed for a person's home. Morris choreographed Visitation to Beethoven's fourth sonata for cello and piano, performed here by cellist Wolfram Koessel and pianist Colin Fowler (the performances at Lincoln Center featured Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax). Not unlike other Morris choreographies, Visitation opens with an odd number of dancers, five, and seems to be about the search for pairing, both fulfilled and frustrated, here represented by the solo figure of Maile Okamura. There was also a close correspondence between the musical inspiration and the gestures, another typical Morris quality, here pervaded by a child-like innocence in the movements, which also followed the formal structure of each movement. The slow grace of the opening sections of the second movement exploded for the Allegro vivace conclusion, down to the low notes of the cello part being represented by a funeral procession-like carrying of inert dancers to the playful shove of partners to the floor with Beethoven's forceful final cadences.

Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Mark Morris Dance Group performs at George Mason Center for the Arts (Washington Post, June 14)

---, In the world of choreographer Mark Morris, live music is key (Washington Post, June 12)

Mozart Dances (Kennedy Center, 2009)
Dido and Aeneas (George Mason, 2008)
Empire Garden takes its completely different character -- capturing something of the splashy exuberance and corny enthusiasm of an American parade (or perhaps political campaign) -- from the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano of Charles Ives. The brightly colored costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman recall marching band uniforms or circus outfits, reinforcing the air of stylized, ultimately empty display created by Morris's choreography of often robotic movements (jagged, accented jumps, strutting march patterns, and an alternately disconcerting or amusing gargoyle-like yawning of the mouth). The campiness is most pronounced in the scherzo second movement (which Ives titled "TSIAJ," supposedly an acronym for "This scherzo is a joke"), filled with some corny quotations of American folk songs and even Yale fraternity tunes. Morris's choreography seems equally tongue in cheek.

The more serious work on the second half, V, is set to Schumann's op. 44 piano quintet, a work recently described here as "one of the most perfect works of chamber music" in a gorgeous performance by the Takács Quartet and Joyce Yang. The musical performance presented here was not up to that level but provided a good enough background for the choreography, dating from 2001 and now a Morris classic. Two sets of seven dancers are set off by their different costumes -- satiny bluebird shorts and semi-open blouses versus celery green tank tops and slacks (designed by Martin Pakledinaz). Once again, the score's motifs are matched to memorable movements that help underscore the musical forms: the funeral march of the second movement corresponded to a mechanical crawling on the floor that ran through the whole movement, for example, and the fugal transformation of the last movement's theme was represented by the repetition of the corresponding gestures by a pair of dancers at each statement.

You have to wait only until next season for the Mark Morris Dance Group to return to the George Mason University Center for the Arts, for a stop on its 30th anniversary tour on February 4, 2011.

Mark Morris on the relationship of music and dance

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