Mark Morris Dance Group
A Forest
Pure Dance Items
Serenade
Dancing Honeymoon

George Mason University Center for the Arts
Fairfax, VA

February 24, 2017

Carmel Morgan

It always feels like a homecoming of sorts when the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) comes to George Mason University. While obviously MMDG’s home is in Brooklyn, New York, the company has close connections to and a longstanding relationship with George Mason University. For example, among MMDG’s current dancers are three George Mason University graduates. Accordingly, the George Mason audience is always full of family members and diehard fans. For reasons unknown to me, MMDG makes its reliable trek to the DC area during winter, and I can recall many years when snow dotted the sky, or even postponed the performance. Not so this year, when my trip out to the Virginia suburbs was far more pleasant than usual given the unseasonably warm weather.

This year’s program began with two works from 2016, A Forest and Pure Dance Items. These works share a lot in common. They reflect Morris’s tremendously effective visceral translations of music into movement and include moments of his trademark humor. A Forest, set to Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trio No. 44 in E Major, features nine dancers, who start the work in three trios. The title of the piece might come from the costumes — white long-sleeved unitards covered in a toile pattern with trees, reminiscent of wallpaper (the costumes were designed by former company member Maile Okamura), or from the dancers’ arms, which sometimes jut upward, like branches suddenly branching, or both. Nothing strikes me as particularly different or innovative about A Forest, but it contains elements I’ve enjoyed in other Morris pieces, especially folk dance bits, quirky humor, and physical depictions of music that truly enhance one’s experience of the score. Dancers hold hands and weave around; they purposefully jiggle their thighs like jelly and stick their hands under their armpits or atop their shoulders and flap their arms like chicken wings; they hold their arms in crossed front at the wrists, hands dangling, as they gallop, and they lean precipitously to the side as long notes slide and tumble to the floor as notes tumble, too. Also rewarding is the repetition of such phrases and gestures, which is typical of Morris. The repetition unifies A Forest and shows why Morris is a master choreographer. A Forest is simple, silly, and serious, all simultaneously, and as with most of Morris’s choreography, it’s completely satisfying.  

Mark Morris Dance Group, A Forest, photo by Ani Collier

Mark Morris Dance Group, A Forest, photo by Ani Collier

Of the two new works on the program, though, I prefer Pure Dance Items. The larger group, twelve dancers, gives more opportunities for playful and interesting spatial relationships. To selections from Salome Dances for Peace by Terry Riley, the dancers, in large brightly colored shirts and tight bicycle length tights (costume design by Elizabeth Kurtzman), are in turns grim and triumphant, occasionally funny, but always intense. They arch one arm overhead, the other covers the face. A trio with fast footwork and interlocked hands humorously recalls Swan Lake. Echoing the strong strings (Georgy Valtchev, violin; Anna Luce, violin; Jessica Troy, viola; and Michael Haas, cello), the legs of the dancers kick out to the beat.  

While A Forest has a recognizable simplicity to it, it’s easier to see the complexity in Pure Dance Items. Layers and themes build, just as the music does. In my opinion, Pure Dance Items really takes off when the color of the light behind the dancers changes to a rich, velvety black (lighting design by Nick Kolin). The colorful costumes pop all the more then. With all of the dancers on the stage at once, the scene reminded me of a billiard table — balls striking and creating various geometric patterns. In a continuous line, they jump and spin and skip and quickly change directions. Pairs of dancers mirror each other with a shift in facing. The colorful costumes, along with the dancing, bring to mind refractions, like light through a prism. At one point, the dancers literally build, making towers of themselves. With one dancer resting on another’s shoulders, pairs repeat rhythmic arm movements.

Serenade, a solo to Serenade for Guitar by Lou Harrison, premiered in 2003 at George Mason University. I understand that Morris himself originally danced this solo. In 2017, Lesley Garrison danced it, and she danced it gloriously. I would guess that her performance pleased Morris, although I wonder if it’s bittersweet to watch a heartfelt solo created for yourself performed by someone else. Robert Belinic played guitar and Stefan Schatz played percussion, both beautifully. During this performance, rather than dancing, I’m told Morris briefly joined the musicians, playing castanets. I admit I was too mesmerized by Garrison’s powerful dancing to pay attention to the identity of the third musician in black who quietly slipped on stage!

Isaac Mizrahi’s costume design, a long-sleeved white wrap shirt and a black, vaguely Middle Eastern, full length skirt/pant with a long slit, is perfection, as is Michael Chybowski’s equally crisp and clean lighting design, which highlights the movement while keeping the rest of the stage quite dim. The solo is demanding and has five distinct sections. There are props, including a shiny long copper pipe and a folding Spanish-style fan. Serenade brings to life not only the music, but deep feelings. There is something magical, mystical, and sad about Serenade that reels you in (the work premiered shortly after Harrison died and Morris dedicated it to Harrison). Garrison thrusted her limbs ahead of her, punching the dark space. You could hear her breathing heavily toward the end. Typical of Morris, there are hints of humor, too. Garrison repeatedly jerked her head to the side to peek from behind the unfurled fan.    

Mark Morris Dance Group, Dancing Honeymoon, photo by Christopher Duggan

Mark Morris Dance Group, Dancing Honeymoon, photo by Christopher Duggan

The program closed with Dancing Honeymoon, a work from 1998 to catchy, frequently comic 1920s and 30s tunes by Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. Morris performed again, taking on vocalist duties. Just prior to beginning to sing, he gargled. His voice wasn’t as good as his choreography, but it was good enough. Dancing Honeymoon is more about charm than sublimity, and his sometimes gravelly voice fit into the charming category just fine. Dancing Honeymoon radiates sunniness, not only in the laugh out lyrics but in the vivid yellow costumes by Kurtzman. Due to the colors and cheerfulness, the seven dancers made me think of daffodils, which I spotted walking to the venue, a rare sight for February!

There’s something doll-like in the way the dancers relate to one another. When I call a piece “cute,” it isn’t usually a compliment, but when it comes to Dancing Honeymoon, “cute” is flattering, and it’s what I’m pretty sure the piece was meant to be. The dancers’ feet flutter, they slam their fists impishly into their thighs, and they smile, widely. They command the stage, skipping and tapping (but without tap shoes). Normally, I object to chairs as props, but when you’re Mark Morris, you can get away with just about anything. Folding chairs are hoisted into the air like partners, and they add dimension to the stage’s topography. Rowdy and fun, Dancing Honeymoon is a perfect closer, and the audience clearly ate it up with relish judging by all the applause.