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Mark Morris and Lou Harrison

Words, Mark Morris Dance Group

The Mark Morris Dance Group has been coming to the George Mason University Center for the Arts every couple of years. We try not to miss any of their local appearances, especially not one that features two choreographies set to the music of American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003), seen on Saturday evening in the first of two performances. The whole affair, including two fun dances set to Mendelssohn and a recording of Indian music, was whimsical and occasionally breath-taking, invigorated by Morris's reliance on the shape of the music to create his dancers' movements -- and, not unrelated, his insistence on live music.

Morris created Pacific for a different company, and this performance was the premiere of this choreography with his own troupe. Harrison and Morris collaborated on several works in the 1980s and 90s, and this work sets the third and fourth movements of the composer's piano trio, performed here by violinist Georgy Valtchev, cellist Robert Burkhart, and pianist Colin Fowler. Sections of music for solo violin and combinations of the instruments correspond to groupings of the nine dancers, with the men bare-chested in long skirts and the women in dresses (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz), combining bright colors with white. Stark lighting of glowing colors projected on a rear screen (lighting by James F. Ingalls) was matched to the costumes. The finale of this dance, bringing together all of the dancers, was vibrant and joy-filled, with shifts of steps that corresponded to the metric disorientation in the music, over a constant beating pulse.

Grand Duo, also from the 90s, opens to the somewhat mysterious prelude movement of Harrison's Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, on a stage shrouded in darkness, with the dancers reaching their hands into a beam of light shining across the stage. To the slightly folksy, active-sounding movements that follow, Morris gives a somewhat ritual or tribal feel of dances for his large group of 14 dancers, with the men in skirts or loincloths and the women in colored dresses. The second movement, Stampede, had multi-metric shifts in the movements that matched the music, echoed in the later Pacific, followed by A Round, featuring graceful but painstaking held poses. The finale, the antic Polka, was a wild rumpus of crazy movement, capturing beautifully the verve of Harrison's music, hammered clusters and all.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mark Morris Dance Group’s many surprises flow naturally at GMU (Washington Post, March 2)
The two dances in between provided the whimsy, especially the brief Tamil Film Songs in Stereo Pas de Deux, the only piece performed to a recording, featuring the sounds of Indian music. Brian Lawson's campy gay dance instructor harasses, belittles, but ultimately affirms the struggling dance student of Stacy Martorana, a welcome moment of levity with some resonance as commentary on how dance is taught.

The longer Words is set to selections from Mendelssohn's various Songs without Words. Here the costumes (pastel tank tops and shorts with belts) and a blanket, carried on and off to cover entrances and exits, suggested a picnic or beach party, as did the playful gestures of some of the dances, something like tennis or another type of game. Again, Morris found movements that were the ideal visual counterpart of the music they accompanied: twirling bodies for the chromatic "spinning wheel" motif of op. 67/4; heavy steps and lowered heads for the "funeral march" (op. 62/3), ending with two dancers finally seeing one another and looking into each other's faces; much of the choreography is a jeu de miroirs, with dancers in paired parallel movements. Most strikingly, in one piece dancers clenched their hands in front of their bodies, making them shudder up and down, when there was the distinctive sound of an authentic cadence over a tonic pedal. The sound, which is distinctive, will now forever be linked to that gesture in my mind.

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