Dance Review: Smile and Sneer — Mark Morris at the ICA

Now 58, the noted choreographer’s succinct gestural language, coincident use of music and musical ideas, and spatial elasticity is now completely second nature.

Italian Concerto. Photo: Costas.

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group performing in “Italian Concerto.” Photo: Costas.

By Debra Cash

To attend a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group is to know what you are getting.

Now 58, the noted choreographer’s succinct gestural language, coincident use of music and musical ideas, and spatial elasticity is now completely second nature. This is his style, this is his craft. If you like it, it’s reassuringly beautiful; if you find it too predictable you may stay away and skip a MMDG season or three.

Morris loves classical music. He bows to its formal structure and savors its internal mechanisms. When MMDG last appeared in Boston under the auspices of Celebrity Series, it brought the New England premier of his elaborately staged Acis and Galatea, complete with pit orchestra and chorus, singers-as-key-characters on stage, and unisex Isaac Mizrahi costumes. This week’s 4-work repertory program at the Institute of Contemporary Art (through January 25), featuring dances from 2007-2014, is nicely suited for the smaller venue. It features a combination of live music (Colin Fowler, who is MMDG’s music director, playing piano, and Bulgarian-born Georgy Valtchev on violin) and recorded music. Morris often asserts that dance must be accompanied by live music — he is fortunate that his company can command the extra budget that hiring live musicians requires — but that assertion has never been completely true. Over the years, his company has danced to recorded music by everyone from the Violent Femmes to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

The live music that opened this engagement’s program, Bach’s Italian Concerto in F Major, is in three tempos and three moods: Allegro, Andante and Presto. The sunny opening establishes a through line with a duet where the dancers step and adjust their own arms into precise shapes, side by side like the hands on a piano keyboard. In the Andante, Sam Black pulses a hand at his heart in response to a single thrumming note in the score. He dances a pendulous, swaying sequence of movements that are, like Bach’s composition, always returning to equipoise. The playful presto juxtaposes gestures from the previous sections with the dancers — especially the wonderful company veteran Lauren Grant — thrusting their fists into the air like fencing masters and victors.

Jenn and Spencer was danced by one of the dancers for whom it was created — and presumably, whose particular gifts it reflects — Jenn Weddel. A member of MMDG since 2007, she has taken on the kinds of patrician-blonde-girl roles that once belonged to MMDG dancer Julie Worden. Opening night at the ICA the “Spencer” role (made for Spencer Ramirez) was danced by Brandon Randolph, who was scheduled to alternate with Black for other performances.

Weddel’s backless satin gown implies a ballroom encounter, but their symmetry doesn’t convey romance. Instead, the couple face off warily, fall, and lie foot-to-foot with the symmetry of carved angels or gargoyles. This parallelism seems evoked by the fierce chords in Henry Cowell’s 1925 Suite for Violin and Piano. Later they’ll click their ankles in the Slavic folkdance fashion (yes, Cowell evokes Brahms remixing Hungarian folktunes) and Weddel will appear to be casting a frantic spell. An intriguing, and uncharacteristically intricate, lift ends with her deposited unceremoniously on the floor. They support each other until they don’t.

Words, last fall’s big ensemble piece to selections from Felix Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, displays many of Morris’ marvelous signatures. Like his earlier Mozart Dances, another paean to ensemble dancing as a source of pleasure, it displays a bracing inclusivity. The dozen and a half episodes start and finish with a couple of dancers holding up a cloth like an impromptu stage curtain (hey, kids, let’s put on a show). While the “curtain” signals that we should bring a straight-on proscenium point of view to the action, the dancing itself could be just as satisfying seen in the round. It’s amazing how he maneuvers dancers into and out of constellations, first back grounded, then suddenly the focus of our attention.

The musical themes are delivered in straight up associations. A march is a march, with Waddel walking through the troops like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind facing down a Civil War battlefield and people looking upwards as if to heaven or drones. The only strangeness is its inconclusive ending, but perhaps the point is that it’s up to the audience to supply the words to these songs.

performing "A Wooden Tree." Photo: Elaine Mayson.

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group performing in “A Wooden Tree.” Photo: Elaine Mayson.

If the current ICA show had included only these three works, one might have thought that Mark Morris was a man in mid-life who was cherishing his pleasures and his life. He probably does that, I can’t say.

I hadn’t known the name of outsider musician Ivor Cutler before seeing A Wooden Tree. Wikipedia tells me he was a Jewish Scotsman who liked to play at “exaggerated Scottishness” in the absurdist songs he wrote and performed, accompanying himself on the harmonium. A cult favorite in Britain, he appeared in the Beatles’ 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour playing bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel, the love interest of Ringo’s aunt Jessie.

Calling himself an “oblique musical philosopher” on the sountrack, Cutler sings lyrics like “stick out your chest/right out of your vest” and Morris, whose dancers have been clothed by Elizabeth Kurtzman in plaid shorts and argyle knee socks, tam-o-shanters and lace up boots, do just that. They cross hands and cavort in fractured English country dances, twist their fingers in their eyesockets for tears, gather in a mass in the shape of a “tree,” and with very little alteration, could be doing the macarena.

While one section, where Morse Code is translated into some elegant stuttering, the rest of Wooden Tree is all very loosey-goosey and aren’t those lower-class dolts risible and aren’t I smart. A Wooden Tree is a dance the choreographer probably thinks is quirky and funny. I think it drips with contempt. It’s the side of Morris I wish he could finally work through. At the very least, he should stash it behind the Words‘ portable curtain.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2015 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence. At the end of this month she will become the Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance.

c 2015 Debra Cash

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