DANCE REVIEW: Mark Morris Dance Group & Music Ensemble at Jacob’s Pillow

Mark Morris brought his Dance Group and Music Ensemble back to Jacob’s Pillow for something like the twentieth time last weekend – more than any other dance company in Pillow history – and the result was divine. Eclectic music, played live on stage; Morris’ signature combination of an almost relaxed yet joyous movement vocabulary, with his witty, even smart-alecky touches that somehow add to the beauty of the work rather than function as ironic commentary or otherwise detract.


And always the combination of the two – music and movement. What does it mean that he is always described as a uniquely musical choreographer? That the bodies and the instruments are practically breathing together: the dancers embody the structure of the music – the ways the variations move and evolve. Key changes, shifts in tempo, different instrumentations and tones are all reflected in the dance without ever feeling prescriptive or paint-by-numbers.  It also means that Morris always performs with live musicians, and this production included the superb Colin Fowler on piano and Georgy Valtchev on violin.


The program included four pieces from throughout Morris’ 35 year career: Prelude and Prelude dates to 1984, and Sport is brand new, premiering in early July at the Mostly Mozart festival in New York.


Sport is set to a suite of 20 short sketches by Erik Satie, each of which has a title of a different athletic or leisure pursuit: everything from bobsledding to tango to tennis.  The dancers wear two-toned jumpsuits in greens and purples, and go about their various pursuits in a workmanlike way. Satie’s music is gently dissonant, and Morris’ dancers are playful as they swing golf clubs, grunt and squeal during a tennis match, or pull each other across the stage on a large cloth.


Prelude and Prelude had been retired since 1992, and only now brought back onto the stage.  Set to Henry Cowell’s Set of Two for Violin and Harpsichord, the piece feels different from Morris’ mid- and late-career work – more formal, maybe. There is a diagonal line of dancers, who mostly stay in place, and a single soloist. Each dancer wears a simple black one-piece bathing suit and holds a fan, and goes through a sequence of geometric movements that repeat, \ sometimes merge with other dancers, and sometimes break out into something different. If it’s possible to be both soothing and invigorating, this piece accomplishes it.

“Words,” to music by Mendelssohn, blends gestures that might mean something: arms that look like loppers, a poke to another dancers – with abstract movement that, like so much of Morris’ choreographer, looks easy: the legs stay low, the foot is partially pointed, the turns are heavy-footed. I could do that, you might say. And why not? Why don’t we all dance like this, all the time? Why must we sit on the sidelines and let others express emotion, embody music, connect to the spiritual, experience the divine?


Where was I?


Finally, what is there to say about Grand Duo other than “aaaaahhhhh?”  I wish I could stop there and just close my eyes and remember this stunning performance of what a favorite work of dance.


First of all, go find the music, Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo, online. It’s propulsive, surging, gorgeously modern, and just listening to it you know that it makes for a great dance score.  The movement feels tribal — they chug around in a circle, or in two lines that weave in and out of each other. Fists pump at the sky, then down to the ground. There is foot stomping, hip shaking, slapping – it’s some kind of ritual, perhaps, but fierce and fiery.


By the way, the last movement, which Morris choreographed first, is a polka. Morris started his dance life as a folk dancer, and the way regular people dance together is often woven into his work.


All the dancers were terrific- I can’t single anyone out. Morris no longer performs, for the most part, but he came out at the end to answer audience questions and was his usual smart-alecky, salty self. He’s a one-of-a-kind dance making genius, and this was a glorious immersion into some of his greatest work.

Mark Morris Dance Group & Music Ensemble

Dancers: Mica Bernas, Sam Black, Karlie Budge, Brandon Cournay, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lunch, Dallas McMurray, Minga prather, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella,Chirstina Sahaida, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson.

Rehearsal Director: Sam Black. Music Ensemble: Colin Fowler, Georgy Valtchev. Artistic Director: Mark Morris. Executive Director: Nancy Umanoff

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