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Mark Morris Dance Group

Programme 1: 'Empire Garden,' 'Bedtime' and 'V'
Programme 2: 'Visitation,' 'Going Away Party,' 'Three Preludes' and 'Grand Duo'

by David Mead

October 27-31, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

You sometimes wonder how Mark Morris manages consistently to make choreography and dance look so easy. Perhaps that is the problem for some. It looks too easy, and his dancers look so, well, normal. His work could almost be described as low key. It has none of the over-the-top athleticism with its frequently out of place hyper-extensions that we see so much of today, especially in ballet, but in contemporary dance too. And you rarely find yourself sitting there thinking what everything means. But musical and a totally joy to watch? You bet!

For their London season Morris presented seven works in two programmes. “Empire Garden”, danced to the relatively unknown “Trio for Violin” by Charles Ives, looks at first to be all bright and upbeat, and the choreography is mostly fast and quite playful. But there is a more sombre side just beneath the surface. Elizabeth Kurzman’s costumes may be full of bright reds, yellows and blues, but there are also military-looking sashes, stripes and buttons. The dancers look like toy soldiers, and like toy soldiers they die in battle, most notably in one touching slow-motion scene.

“Bedtime” brought death rather more to the fore. Accompanied by Schubert’s “Wiegenlied” (“Cradle Song”), it starts off as a playful lullaby with dancers representing children in bed surrounded by others who seem to be their parents and an angel. By the time we get to “Standchen” (“Seranade”) and dancers with fingers placed to lips as if saying “ssshhhh”, there is already a sense of a nightmare about to begin. Those terrors come with “Erlkonig”, which tells of a young boy’s abduction by a supernatural being (the Erlking of the title) in Goethe’s poem of the same name. There is a menace inherent in the choreography, which seems to depict a boy being called by just such a sinister figure.

“V”, set to “Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major”, is a winner from the start and was a glorious way to end the programme. You could argue that Morris is overly concerned with matching and echoing the structure of the music, but when it has such an infectious, happy-go-lucky feel, who cares? And in any case, just because someone else may visualise it differently doesn’t make Morris’ view any less valid. His choreography is full of delightful light running and jumps. But best of all, and in total contrast, is the central slow section. Here the dancers crawl ant-like, their bodies full of sharp angles as they move jerkily across the stage. I don’t think it is what the music would ever have suggested to me, but it is brilliantly simple, and quite hypnotic.

Having set the bar so high with such an enjoyable first programme, would the second turn out to be a let down. Not a chance! It opened with “Visitation”, danced to “Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major” for piano and cello. Performed in Nicole Pierce’s lighting that suggested soft sunlight, it first exudes the polite formality of folk dance. But as Morris cleverly and gradually develops motifs, the work becomes increasingly complex. Maile Okamura, was outstanding as the odd person out, as indeed she was all evening. It was the perfect starter, like a delightful consommé, light, bright and perfectly seasoned.

Even though I knew what was coming, I smiled just as much at the humour in “Going Away Party” as I did a week earlier in Northampton. And if that is not a good sign, I don’t know what is. Bradon McDonald was again outstanding in “Three Preludes” his white gloves accentuating every gesture, before we got to the real meat course, “Grand Duo”. What more is there to say? It is earthy and powerful from start to finish, the dancers driven on by Lou Harrison’s score for violin and piano of the same name. With its ever-increasing intensity and sense of ritual, it is undoubtedly a Morris masterpiece. If you get the chance, don’t miss it. No sweet course I’m afraid, but then I suppose you should always leave the audience wanting more.

And so London’s aural and visual feast came to a close. Morris’ mixed bag of dancers, all shapes and sizes and with diverse backgrounds and training are all virtuosos, yet you never get the feeling they are shouting ‘look at me’. They do not need to, and Morris has the sense to realise what such a range of characters can bring to his works. Like Morris, his dancers seem to really enjoy what they are doing, not only moving to music, but moving musically. And we enjoy watching them too. The whole company is a treat indeed!

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