Mark Morris Dance Group & Music Ensemble

Concert dance choreographed purely as an expression of music can range from being something for the eyes to set upon while music is playing — e.g. the kind of light ballet that one often finds with opera or the BBC Proms, where the movement is more of a loose accompaniment to the music rather than the other way around — to being a strong, expressive work that brings new things out of the music and stands firmly in its own, well established character. Mark Morris’ work this evening leaned more toward the former: it contained a lot of clever and fun work that rose well above vapidity, though it never quite managed to find character for itself beyond the music. If it had been set to recorded music, honestly, I’d have thought it a little cheesy but, fortunately, there was a pretty decent piano trio accompanying the first and third pieces, so the choreography didn’t really have to stand above the music for it to be a good show.

The first piece was, for some reason, titled “Pacific.” I have no idea why, though, because the choreography didn’t seem particularly inspired by the cultures around the Pacific ocean nor did it seem particularly pacified or pacifying. It was set to the last two movements of Lou Harrison’s trio for violin, cello, and piano, which is a very melodic piece. The choreography seemed like a blend of folk dances from the British islands with a hint of baroque social dance in a ballet wrapper. The costumes were flowy and kind of fun, though they did seem a bit out of place. The lighting was all side and top lighting, with big, deep shadows, that also seemed out of place. They also did that obnoxious thing where the colors that the dancers are wearing match the color projected on the backdrop such that it somewhat reduces contrast. The overall effect of the strangely out of place name, costumes, and lighting gave what was otherwise a lovely piece a hint of pretension that I feel detracted from its charm. (To be frank, the lighting for the entire show seemed a little pretentious for the content of what was being preformed.)

The second piece was set to a recording of music by Ivor Cutler. These were a bunch of very silly songs in the vein of English drinking songs. Here, to be honest, the silly songs dominated and the dance was just there as an excuse for us all sit around together and laugh at the silly lyrics. It kind of looked like something that you might see in a high-school dance workshop, only a little more polished. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy laughing but it wasn’t what I wanted from a professional dance concert. I’m sure that the dancer’s parents loved it, though.

The final piece was called Festival Dance and was like a less pretentious version of the first piece. Instead of a 20th century composer, he went with a piece from the late classical period: Johan Nepomuk Hummel’s Piano Trio No. 5. This was a fun and lovely piece with a lot of delightful partnering. There wasn’t as much beauty as the first piece, but it had all of the enjoyability and a sense of humor not unlike that of Joseph Hayden.

Regardless of what else I might say about the works, Morris does an excellent job of integrating movement with music. I think that the extent to which a person is going to like his work is going to be a reflection of the extent to which the person likes the music that Morris is working with. I’m not a huge fan of the works that he selected but I did still appreciate his cleverness and humor and his company was well composed and quite good at what they were doing. I might enjoy seeing him put something to Hayden or CPE Bach. I’d also be interested in seeing him set something to Beethoven’s symphony no. 6 or perhaps his 4th symphony. I think that a clever person could probably produce a good pops concert with him and I think that there may actually be a good audience for that in Atlanta if it were marketed correctly. That said, I probably wouldn’t adjust my schedule to see it, though I would happily buy a ticket to it to fill a free Friday evening.

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