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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Italian Concerto,' 'Going Away Party,' 'Three Preludes,' and 'Grand Duo'

by David Mead

October 20, 2009 -- Derngate, Northampton, UK

Variety is the spice of life, and Mark Morris and his diverse company of dancers certainly gave the Northampton audience that.  But the opening did not auger well.  Although “Italian Concerto”, named after the Bach piano score to which it is danced, expands into the more flowing dance usually associated with Morris in the final movement, the beauty of the music is lost as one’s thoughts focus on the far too dominant gestures and mime.  Many are repeated time and again including the hand thrust forward with the fingers splayed, the flat palms, the heavy clumping walk, and was that really a man fishing?  They clearly all mean something, but what is kept hidden.

Things picked up enormously with “Going Away Party”, a colourful, real let your hair down piece danced to songs from Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys.  Indeed, it is such great fun that it is often presented as a closing work.

Set on three couples and an odd male, Morris’ take on a barn dance looks easy but is in fact very intricate and precise.  His choreography constantly changes the group’s shape and orientation as it breaks and reforms, and the couples swap partners.  There is plenty of light and irreverent humour as Morris plays with lyrics such as “Seen my milk cow?” and visually as he shows us the men peeing behind the barn.

The dancers’ characters shone through.  Bradon McDonald was excellent as the odd man out who is leaving town, a role originally taken by Morris, and who is knitted into the proceedings but whom, ultimately, is forgotten.  Samuel Black, Domingo Estrada Jr., Lauren Grant, Maile Okumura, Noah Vinson and Julie Worden flirted and played with each other as if they did not have a care in the world.  It was great and had everyone smiling.  But, as if it was not entertaining enough, I just couldn’t help thinking just how much more fun it would have been with live music as is sometimes the case in the US.

 “Three Preludes” is three solos danced to Gershwin’s “Preludes for Piano”, and originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov.  In Northampton, Bradon McDonald was appropriately spirited, somewhat melancholic, and playful as he bounced, jumped and skipped around every inch of the stage.

Although less than ten minutes long, “Three Preludes” is a hugely interesting work.  At first sight it seems almost cartoon-like, and as if it should be humorous, yet there is an underlying tension about it, and more than a hint of expressionism.  Apart from the dancer, and it is a piece that I suspect could be performed in many different ways, a central feature is Isaac Mizrahi’s heavily stylised costume.  The white gloves and socks, set off against a black top, trousers and shoes serve brilliantly to emphasise the footwork and the seemingly throwaway, but all important, hand and arm gestures.

“Grand Duo” made for a dramatic and thrilling end to the evening.  Generally considered one of his signature works, this is Morris and his company at their best.  Dramatically lit by Michael Chybowski, there is a sense of tribalism right from the off that develops into a stomping, finger-jabbing circular ritual dance that evokes memories of “The Rite of Spring”. 

It is exciting right from the opening image, dancers spaced across the stage in shadows but with their arms raised, their hands caught in a horizontal beam of light.  The work has an almost primeval sense about it, with most of the dance grounded, with lots of sideways movement and bent legs.  The footwork gets increasingly fast and exciting, right to the finale in which the dancers divide into two defiant, almost warring groups.  It was as electrifying as Lou Harrison’s urgent score.

Live music is an important part of the dance experience for Morris, and he has brought his own music ensemble for this tour.  On this occasion it was well-played by Colin Fowler on piano and violinist Georgy Valtchev.

The Mark Morris Dance Group tour of the UK continues to London (Sadler’s Wells), Plymouth, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Newcastle and Snape Maltings.  Programmes vary.  For full details see www.danceconsortium.com/markmorris.


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