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Mark Morris Dance Group, Among the Shades

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).

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, The colorful restraint of the Mark Morris Dance Group (Washington Post, February 22)
The oldest work, Resurrection from 2002, provided some comic relief. To the polished swing of Richard Rodgers's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, played unfortunately from a recording, Morris tells a hard-boiled faux-noir story, with his energetic dancer Lauren Grant getting shot, then taking her revenge, only to end up in a broad Hollywood kiss with her murderous paramour on top of a human pyramid. Morris plays with all sorts of classic musical gestures, down to the kick line, almost a synchronized swimming routine, of the dancers in a circle. Morris's new choreography The, premiered at Tanglewood last summer and commissioned for Tanglewood's 75th anniversary, is somewhat reminiscent of L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato with its pastel costumes and happy upbeat style. Morris uses a transcription of Bach's first Brandenburg Concerto, by Max Reger for piano four-hands, so we lose all the fun of the raucous horns intruding on the courtly dance scene, and transposes the third-movement "Allegro" to the end of the piece, destroying Bach's odd form of a dance suite appended to the three-movement concerto. The perky staccato movements of the second trio movement, one of the score's delights, were a highlight.

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