George Mason Center for the Arts, Fairfax, VA; February 22, 2014

Carmel Morgan

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'A Wooden Tree' Photo © Tim Summers

Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘A Wooden Tree’
Photo © Tim Summers

This year, unlike many years before, the Mark Morris Dance Group (“MMDG”) performed at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, on an unusually warm February day.  The Washington, DC area has been hit hard with winter weather lately, but luckily the company’s visit was well timed.  The pieces on the program were, overall, fairly sunny as well, but with some of Morris’s quirky dark humor. The exception was “Jenn and Spencer,” a 2013 duet named for Jenn Weddel and former MMDG member Spencer Ramirez, and performed by Weddell and Sam Black, who appeared in each of the evening’s four works.  “Jenn and Spencer” provided the most serious drama.  For me, at least, due to the relationship dynamics explored in the duet, it was more intriguing than the rest of the dances sandwiched around it.

In “Jenn and Spencer,” set to Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano, Weddel, in a long negligee-like brownish rose-colored gown with a low back, and Black, in a white formal shirt and gray pants, circled one another, clashing but also looking like they found it hard to tear away from each other.  They took turns appearing as lovers begging to be taken back, or ones seeking to take control.  Wedell steered Black’s open legs like a ship, as he was on his back.  Later she grabbed at his feet while he stood, and later still she supported him as he floated above her, his chest resteing atop her legs.

The additional three pieces on the program “Italian Concerto,” “A Wooden Tree,” and “Crosswalk,” generated smiles and some laughs.  “A Wooden Tree,” in particular, with its weird, silly lyrics by Scottish singer/songwriter Ivor Cutler (song titles included “I Got No Common Sense,” and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean”), and costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman featuring Scottish inspired caps, vests, sweaters, and argyle knee socks, made the audience giggle and grin.  Although “A Wooden Tree” was the sole work performed to recorded music, in this case live accompaniment wasn’t missed.  Morris often uses folk dance elements in his works, and the folksy charm of Cutler’s music matched well with the folksy dancing in “A Wooden Tree.”  Part of what made watching the “A Wooden Tree” fun was anticipating the lyrics and the storytelling movement paired with them.  To lyrics about being on top of the world, accompanied by the “dit dit dah” of Cutler singing in Morse code, female dancers jerked and shook as they walked around precariously on releve. When Cutler sang about flowers in the grass, dancers’ arms rounded above their heads.  The somewhat literal movement produced smirks of recognition.

The Mark Morris Dance in "Crosswalk" Photo © Steph

The Mark Morris Dance in “Crosswalk”
Photo © Steph

The opening and closing works had their light moments, too.  In the amusing and well crafted “Italian Concerto,” to Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major, five dancers played.  They extended fists, stacked objects in the air, and undulated their arms in waves.  Sometimes you could see the dancers manipulating a rope, only there was no rope present, just their arms lassoing around or pulling something with tension.  While in “A Wooden Tree,” the dancers made the lyrics come alive, in “Italian Concerto,” they made the notes come alive through their dancing.

In the last piece, “Crosswalk,” Todd Palmer played clarinet and Colin Fowler, music director of the MMDG Music Ensemble, played the piano (Carol Maria von Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant).  Eleven dancers – three women in bright orange t-shirts and skirts and eight men in white t-shirts and dark pants (costumes again by Elizabeth Kurtzman) – contributed to a mad jumble that contained strong sections of unison.  “Crosswalk,” like other works on the program, possessed humor, and it also delivered delicious ensemble dancing.  In addition to choreography with folk dance elements, I’ve seen several Morris works that use movement from childhood.  In “Crosswalk,” I saw skipping (a lot of skipping) and somersaults.  There was also a wonderful chain of dancers, in sets of two, weaving a lattice pattern on stage as they moved.  Yet sometimes the mood turned somber (at one point a single dancer was left alone in a fetal curl), and sometimes the movement was a little less familiar.  Women bent over and crawled like ladies in a yoga class stuck in downward-facing dog and kicking forward.  They also hit bridge pose with their skirts up.  I appreciated such lovely odd moments.  Morris definitely is a master at making the absurd beautiful.