Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe
November 30, 2018
Mark Morris dances are difficult to describe because they are so innovative. The man’s wit is a source of endless creativity, and his work gives the simultaneous impressions of serendipity and contemplation. His dances can be hilarious, uncanny, or provocative, but they always capture something compelling about the human experience understood and illuminated from a deeply intelligent place. When the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and Music Ensemble comes to Santa Fe this month, audiences will be treated to a force in the dance world.
Morris’s choreography is exceptionally diverse—expressing a spectrum of experience from quotidian humor to spiritual mystery—yet it all seems to spring from his profound understanding of music and human connection. “The oldest aspect of culture has got to be rhythm,” says Morris. “Music and dance, together, can grab people in a fundamental, visceral, non-verbal way. No translation necessary. Watch and listen.”
With a Mark Morris dance, to “watch and listen” can feel almost synesthetic. Morris conducts, presents operas, sings, plays instruments. While his choreography reveals and revels in a uniquely complex understanding of music, it is still relatable to audiences. He explains, “When I’m in an audience, I want to be addressed honestly and directly by the people on stage. I only work with living musicians [Morris pieces never feature recorded music] and living dancers, and they are all people too, just like everyone watching and listening. We are pretty friendly.”
Reinforcing this friendly connection, Morris will be in Santa Fe for this fall’s performance. “What else would I do?” he banters, like this multiform creator of over 180 pieces could not possibly be occupied. “Although my presence isn’t always crucial to ‘the show must go on,’ I love watching my performers perform. I’m always guaranteed a great evening at the theater. I also happen to appear in this particular program.”
Morris founded MMDG in 1980. He achieved international stardom by the end of that decade, becoming the Director of Dance for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and collaborating with Mikhail Baryshnikov to form the White Oak Dance Project. His ability to create dances that are accessible and enjoyable—whether or not you have an advanced degree in music theory—stems in part from his roots in various forms of folk dance. He began teaching Sevillanas Spanish dance as a young teenager and Croatian folkdance at the age of eighteen. “In the folkdance community, you were always teaching somebody something,” he told MMDG dancer Lauren Grant.
Morris’s choreography is exceptionally diverse—expressing a spectrum of experience from quotidian humor to spiritual mystery—yet it all seems to spring from his profound understanding of music and human connection.
The dancers share and participate in this human connection. While they are all technically excellent, with obvious command of balletic and modern movement, “the diversity of the dancers stands out,” Jonathan Winkle of Performance Santa Fe observes. “These dancers appear as a group of people.” This is all the more impressive because Morris’s work is so demanding in its precision. It requires articulations of the body (wrists, ankles, neck, elbows) not normally expected or encountered, exacting timing, and musical nuance. Yet, even within such confines, the dancers find space to play with the choreography and imbue it with their own choices and risks. “The specificity can push you to become more creative,” says dancer Laurel Lynch.
Another important facet of the company’s connectivity is its commitment to community engagement. The Mark Morris Dance Center, located in Brooklyn, New York, provides opportunities and education for dancers of all ages and abilities. They offer classes for children with special needs and older adults with Parkinson’s Disease and their care partners, summer intensives, and a student company for serious young dancers to hone their art and gain performance experience. There are dance teacher training programs, dance and fitness classes for all community members, and even community workshops when the group is on tour.
The program on the 30th will include four pieces: Dancing Honeymoon, Words, Three Preludes, and Grand Duo. Dancing Honeymoon, which premiered in 1998, is set to music of Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan, two romantic-saucy-entertaining singer-dancer-actors of the early 1900s. Morris has been known to sing on stage for this one, so keep your eyes and ears peeled. The piece is evocative of silver screen and Broadway musicals, swishing playfully between frolicking and sultry. The light yellow costumes bring to mind summer romances—or flirtations—over picnics. The choreography is replete with humor and charming gags as the dancers weave in and out of relations that seem born of spatial convenience more than matrimonial choices.
Words, the youngest dance on this program, premiered in 2014. It is set to a selection of Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. The choreography showcases Morris’s unique musical approach and clarity. It seems to deconstruct recognizable, almost simple movement vocabulary and reconstruct it with fun new meanings tied to the notes. New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay writes, “The dances show us how much the choreographer can do with a simple, near-pedestrian dance vocabulary and a phenomenally diverse grasp of basic dance musicality.” The dancers carry a screen that facilitates the opportunity for surprises as patterns are hidden and emerge.
The next piece, Three Preludes, premiered in 1992 and is set to an arrangement of music by George Gershwin. You might think you know what to expect based on having seen Gershwin musicals. But were you imagining a soloist that looks like the spirits of Duke Ellington, Charlie Chaplin, and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice decided to possess one (nonetheless extremely elegant) dancer? The costume, an Isaac Mizrahi tuxedo, does nothing to detract from the debonair, occasionally haunting feel of the dance.
The final piece on the program, Grand Duo, is an enduring MMDG favorite from 1993 set to American composer Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano. Morris and Harrison are themselves a grand duo. Like Balanchine and Stravinsky, the two artists’ visions complement each other in a mesmerizing, mutually elevating way. Harrison’s compositions, influenced by his studies of Asian music, involve puzzle-like melodic structures, unfamiliar tonalities, complex rhythms, and an affinity for the unusual. Morris dives deeply in, and the result is stunning. The dance is evocative of nighttime folk rituals—or perhaps something more ancient.
Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble is brought to Santa Fe by Performance Santa Fe. The performance will be at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on November 30, 7:30 pm. Tickets are available through Performance Santa Fe and the Lensic.