Pacific, Words, The Tamil Film Songs in Stereo Pas de Deux, Grand Duo

George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, VA; February 28, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Mark Morris Dance Group in Grand Duo.  Photo © Erin Baiano

Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘Grand Duo’.
Photo © Erin Baiano

With few exceptions, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) has shown up at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, each winter since I moved to the DC area almost a decade ago, and for this I’m extremely grateful. Morris’ choreography captivates me in a way that keeps me coming back for more. Not only do I wish to see his works repeatedly, but I envy those performing them.

If watching Morris’ dances brings me such bliss, then I imagine that actually dancing them must be even more satisfying. I regularly nod my head and/or sigh when contemplating his creations. Sometimes you read the end of a novel and feel the author wrapped things up just right or you see a painting and think you wouldn’t change a thing. For me, Morris’ choreography pretty much always imparts that emotion. His works approach perfection.

In this year’s program, “Pacific” and “Grand Duo”, each performed to the music of Lou Harrison, made lovely bookends. “Pacific” was performed fairly adeptly by the Washington Ballet in 2010, but I thought that the dancers didn’t let themselves go enough. With all the beautiful scoops and swooshes mimicking ocean waves, the choreography calls for abandon, and the ballet dancers appeared hesitant, unable to find the proper physical looseness or convey the emotional highs.

Although San Francisco Ballet premiered “Pacific” in 1995, it was very interesting to see MMDG’s premiere of it. No longer in the hands of a ballet company, the work showed the uninhibitedness I’d missed before, and it resonated more powerfully.

In contrast to “Pacific,” “Grand Duo”, which premiered in 1993, has a less gentle quality overall. “Grand Duo” is dramatic and, well, grand. Others have described it as a masterpiece, and I agree. The dancers attacked the work with shocking rhythm and strength. The opening sequence in which dancers on a dim stage extend their arms high above into a stream of light (superb lighting design by Michael Chybowski), so that only their hands became searingly bright, almost like birds floating above the darkness, was stunning.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Words.  Photo © Ani Collier

Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘Words’.
Photo © Ani Collier

'Words'.  Photo © Johan Henckens

Photo © Johan Henckens

Throughout, dancers moved in and out of geometric formations that echoed the music’s quiet moments and bursts. Early in “Grand Duo”, veteran MMDG member Michelle Yard wore a long vibrant red dress, which stood out among the darker costumes worn by the rest. As she darted around, one couldn’t help but become of aware of fingers on the piano keys similarly weaving about. Later, as chords pounded, the dancers battled. Crash, one group flung themselves toward another. Bang, another group lunged forward or back. And yet Morris mixes his more literal translations of the score with surprising movement that departs from the expected and yet still reveals the music’s soul. This is part of his incredible genius. He knows how to not simply complement music with dance, but how to enhance it, make it visual, make it come alive and reach you in ways sound alone cannot do.

Also on the program were one quite new and one quite old piece. “Words” premiered at New York’s Fall for Dance Festival in October last year. Performed to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”, it conjures thoughts of communication successes and blunders. The dancers wear colorful boyish long shorts and sleeveless tops (by MMDG dancer Maile Okamura). Couples reach out but walk past each other, then lean away, like they engaging in a conversation that strikes out. Cleverly, dancers carry a fabric screen ushering new performers onto the stage and escorting others off. Only their bare legs of those behind could be seen beneath the square. Crisply pointed toes reminded me of punctuation. For me the mood moved from playful to melancholy.

“The Tamil Film Songs in Stereo Pas de Deux”, from 1983, is a little laugh-out-loud dance/theater piece that completely charmed the audience. A self-assured male dance instructor in blue, Brian Lawson, tutors a female student in pink, Stacy Martorana. As he demonstrates what she was to dance, Indian syllables – including the familiar mama and dada (recorded music) – blurted out to accompany the lesson. The pair uproariously danced their frustration as the vocalists seemingly sparred. Artful and cute, this pas de deux added a welcome dose of dance and musical humor.