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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Visitation,' 'Going Away Party,' 'Three Preludes' and 'Grand Duo'

by Stuart Sweeney

October 28, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

This year sees the 25th anniversary of the first visit to London by the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). I missed the original season in 2004, but saw them at London's The Place the following year. As one of the dancers from that era told me, “It was tough – sleeping on floors, getting kicked out of little hotels if we made too much noise and no money for anything.”

There were no more than 10 dancers in those early years, but today's MMDG boasts 19, with a state of the art dance centre in New York and a stellar reputation. The defining moment in the company's history came with the 1988-1991 residence at la Monnaie, Belgium's national opera house. As Morris describes, they went from relatively poverty to almost unlimited money, stage time and, crucially, orchestra time, the like of which will probably never be enjoyed again by a contemporary dance group. This residency divides the company's history into 3 phases: pre-, during and post-Belgium. The initial period saw edgy works such as “Deck of Cards” with three playings of the country and western monologue, one of which had a solo toy lorry pulled across the stage on a string, and a second featured Morris in a chiffon dress; and “Lovey” to songs by The Violent Femmes with the dancers doing rude things with dolls.

At la Monnaie, Morris was able to create large-scale work to live orchestral music for the first time, and “Dido and Aeneas” and “L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed it Moderato” represent pinnacles in ensemble dance making. If the post-Belgium period initially saw a return to smaller-scale new work, opportunities to see the Monnaie repertory soon convinced opera houses in the US and the UK to work with Morris on original productions, and his most recent for English National Opera, “King Arthur”, was a giddy comedy, junking the original story and involving the singers in the choreography, much to their delight.

The two programmes at Sadler's presented work ranging from 1990 to 2009, covering most of the anniversary period, without delving into the pre-Belgium repertoire. Perhaps we can see some of the early works next time. Overall, the second programme showed us fluent dance performed by artists chosen not for triple tours en l'air, but rather for an easy grace and movement quality, combined with fine musicality. And what a range of music: Beethoven, Gershwin, country and western and Lou Harrison – Morris has done much to introduce this fascinating composer to UK audiences.

“Visitation”, a UK premiere for nine dancers, is a reflective, subtle work. Maile Okamura is the loner, dressed in gray with her own steps, while the others are all dressed in pastel shades, with the choreography suggesting a group of friends or partners. Sometimes one of the group will pick up the loner's dance and sometimes she tries to fit in. But in the end she breaks away and stands defiantly alone, as if saying – I'm fine the way I am. This is a quiet work, but with its varying number of dancers and its intriguing relationships, I look forward to seeing it again.

“Going Away Party” from 1990 is enormous fun, set to a series of songs by Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys. Morris takes the basic shapes of square dancing and transforms them into sophisticated choreography, with sly sexual allusion, sometimes almost as naughty as Ashton’s. While all is smiles during the dances, between times we see deeper into the characters, including a grumpy Lauren Grant, one of the longest serving MMDG members and perfect in much of the rep. A couple of the dances spotlight Brendan McDonald as another loner, someone people know but have not bonded with. At 24 minutes, “Going Away Party” is maybe a song or two too long, but there are few enough witty dance works and this is a notable member of the canon.

Morris created “Three Preludes” as a solo for himself in 1992 and Brendan McDonald was superb, dancing in the Master's footsteps with effortless precision, whether in the faster outer movements or the melancholy central section. With arms circling and short jumps, Morris' creation brings Gershwin's jazz influenced score to vibrant life.

Finally came “Grand Duo” from 1993 – a large-scale work from the early years back in the USA. Funds must have been on a much reduced level compared with the la Monnaie time, but Lou Harrison's meaty score enables Morris to use 13 dancers in a 25-minute piece but with only two musicians. It's often fairly described as Morris' “The Rite of Spring”; the faster sections remind me of the fierce quality of his early work. My impression is of a conflict between two tribes or factions. After a tense prologue, a full-scale conflict develops encapsulated in a terrific hopping step with arms stretched out, which is used for the programme cover. The third movement sees intricate circular patterns and the finale races along with great energy and the dancers' perfect synchronisation made the steps even more powerful.

As always, Mark Morris came out on stage at the final curtain call and the audience was delighted to applaud his success. If Morris can emulate Merce Cunningham's achievement by choreographing into his later years then hopefully we can look forward to another 25 years of his elegant, fluent and inventive dances.

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