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Friday, March 20, 2015

Mark Morris' Jazzy Spring

Spring, Spring, Spring. Photo: Peg Skorpinski
By Susan Yung

Mark Morris Dance Group returns in April with two rich programs of repertory, including his vivacious interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; Words, a lauded recent work seen briefly in New York before an international tour; and a world premiere entitled Whelm, to Debussy. Not only that, the troupe performs one of MMDG’s all-time favorites, Grand Duo; its soft-slipper rendition of Pacific, most often performed by ballet companies on pointe; and more.

Spring, Spring, Spring’s 2013 premiere at the Ojai Music Festival (Morris served as that festival’s music director) coincided with the centennial of Stravinsky’s riot-inducing Rite of Spring, but Morris took inspiration from the jazzy arrangement by the Bad Plus. (Per usual, music is played live.) In a recent exchange, Morris described his approach, which doesn’t hew to the “chosen one” narrative. “I disagree with the premise. It is the music that gives so many people the urge to make up a dance. Perhaps because they anticipate a press-grabbing succès de scandale like the original. I was not at all lured by the centenary observations. I was thrilled by the marvelous Bad Plus arrangement."

"The Rite is notorious for its 'savage' rhythms, and the bigger the orchestra the soggier the beat,” he continued. “I hear this version as a completely new, ear-cleansingly accurate reading of a churning, driving, Modernist thriller. The original, fake-Russe libretto of Roerich turns me off. Stravinsky, late in his career, denied that the music was anything but abstract. I like that."

Crosswalk. Photo: Elaine Mayson
Pacific was commissioned by San Francisco Ballet in 1995. It is one of two dances set on what Morris calls “ballet specialists;” SFB’s women wear toe shoes to perform it. “My company doesn’t dance on pointe so there’s no scale of comparison,” said Morris. “Since dancing barefoot allows for a much more subtle and nuanced use of the foot, it is a very different feel. The dancers of MMDG have chosen to wear flat slippers because of the many pirouettes and other turns in the text of the dance… They certainly have the chops for it. It looks wonderful.”

Words premiered at 2014 Fall for Dance (NY City Center) and was performed twice before going abroad. Half the company performed it on a DanceMotion USASM tour (produced by the US Dept. of State/BAM), the other half elsewhere; all 16 dancers united to perform it in China. Morris discussed the process. “It is not that unusual for me to build a dance that is adaptable, I just don’t mention it. In choreographing this piece, I worked with only two or three dancers at a time and then had them teach the others.”

It is set to songs by Mendelssohn, including “Song Without Words,” providing a clue to the title. “Words could be a three-minute duet, or half an hour with any number of dancers,” said Morris. “The music, written for piano solo, could conceivably be performed by any instruments or even just whistled. At BAM it will be piano and violin; 16 or so dancers; 25 minutes long. Many of my dances have somewhat open structures. Of course, if you only see a piece once (like most dance critics must) you get to imagine that it is always the same. No live performance of any kind is the same when repeated.”

Grand Duo. Photo: Erin Baiano
Speaking of repetition and variation, while on the DanceMotion USASM tour in Timor Leste, Cambodia, and China, MMDG dancers taught a section of Grand Duo (“Polka”) to local residents, establishing a lively connection. Grand Duo (1993), on Program A, is one of Morris’ classics, with its rousing phrases and irresistible, earth-bound rhythms to music by Lou Harrison. It joins Pacific and Words on this program, plus Whelm, a premiere currently in the works to piano music by Debussy. Joining Spring, Spring, Spring on Program B are two dances from 2013: Crosswalks, an exuberant study of serendipity and confluences to music by Carl Maria von Weber, and Jenn and Spencer, an intense duet to music by Henry Cowell, imbued with the unique drama of a relationship.

The run will be MMDG’s 26th at BAM, which could be considered a second home to Morris. “I like the shape and look and acoustics of the Gilman Opera House so much,” he said. “It is very convenient to my company headquarters which has become an integral part of Fort Greene and Brooklyn. I am always happy to come back to BAM to show the work.”

In addition, the Mark Morris Dance Center hosts master classes given by BAM artists in conjunction with BAM performances, in addition to its own full roster of classes.

Mark Morris Dance Group at BAM:
Program A (Apr 22, 24): Pacific, Words, Whelm, Grand Duo
Program B (Apr 23, 25, 26): Crosswalk; Jenn and Spencer; Spring, Spring, Spring

Reprinted from March 2015 BAMbill

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