Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; November 28, 2013

Stuart Sweeney

Mark Morris Dance Group in Jenn and Spencer. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Mark Morris Dance Group in Jenn and Spencer.
Photo © Stephanie Berger

Mark Morris is a magician: he takes apparently simple steps and performers of all shapes and sizes and weaves them into memorable dance; and always as a response to music. There’s no atonal soundscapes for Morris. He is inspired by compositions from Beethoven, Barber, Satie and others from a wide range of periods and styles, with strong tunes and rhythms to the fore.

The most remarkable choice of music in the second programme of his 2013 London comes in “The wooden Tree”, danced to 14 songs by Scottish idiosyncratic poet Ivor Cutler, who accompanied his bizarre ditties on a wheezy harmonium. But perhaps it’s not so strange as it seems; Morris has always savoured humour. The combination of the Cutler songs, grungy Scots costumes by Katherine M. Patterson and Morris’s witty choreography is irresistible as the players re-enact the short songs. In “Beautiful Cosmos”, an awkwardly seated couple inhabit their individual universes apart from meeting for tea and the two dancers face each other, miming eating sandwiches and rolls. The tuneless “Phonic Poem” describes a car “spill” with hilarity turning to shock when we realise that one of the occupants has died. “Market Place” shows us a variety of ways, mainly unsuccessful, of courting a woman. It’s difficult to put your finger on why this all works so well, but with the mix of folk dance, exaggerated poses and general madness Morris certainly brings Cutler’s songs to vivid life.

“Jenn and Spencer”, performed by Spencer Ramie and Jenn Welded, shows another side of the choreographer’s wide perspective. I cannot recall a previous example of an extended duet by Morris and it’s as if this new combination proved an inspiration. To Henry Rowell’s excellent “Suite for Violin and Piano”, we see a troubled, intense relationship. Morris uses the space with his usual mastery, the dancers enter from opposite wings and spend long moments observing each other separated by the whole stage, before circling ever closer, then separating again. Over the work’s 12 minutes, the innovatory movement for his lovers is always compelling and in the final, lively section, Jenn eventually has had enough, knocks Spencer down and exits stage right. Created a few months ago, this breathtaking duet shows Morris remaining at the top of his game.

“Festival Dance” also concerns couples, with a repeated motif of a very big hug. It’s as if after the anguish of “Jenn and Spencer”, Morris wants to show us that relationships can work. The six couples dance to a Johann Hummel piano trio, and elegance is to the fore with symmetrical patterns adding to the harmonious atmosphere. As always, use of space and the simple but distinctive movement is a delight. However, after the final big hug, I was left with the feeling that despite its many virtues “Festival Dance” had a little too much sugar in the mix for my taste.

The opener, “Excursions”, is accompanied by Samuel Barber’s “Excursions for the Piano”, intriguingly played in reverse order. These are variations on American themes and sees Morris again in playful mood. The opening music is a square dance and we even have a square marked out on the stage which constrains the dancers in a series of witty steps using folk dance patterns. I challenge anyone to watch without smiling. The second movement is based on a favourite tune of mine, the sad “Streets of Laredo”, and for once with Morris, I found the jokes fell flat against the melancholy of the music. “Excursions” ends with a marching theme and sprightly solo dances.

It’s five years since Mark Morris brought his Group to the UK and all seven of the works featured in the two programmes date from this period, as if to say, “This is what I’ve done while I’ve been away.” Please don’t desert us for so long again.