Mark Morris Dance Group

All choreography by Mark Morris:
Resurrection (2002); music by Richard Rodgers, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (West Coast premiere)
A Lake (1991); music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Horn Concerto No. 2 in D
Something Lies beyond the Scene (2002), music by William Walton, Façade (World premiere)
Foursome (2002); music by Erik Satie, Gnossiennes for Piano (Nos. 1, 2 and 3) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Seven Hungarian Dances; (Bay Area premiere)
Lucky Charms (1994); music by Jacques Ibert, Divertissement

Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, CA

October 4, 2002
By Mary Ellen Hunt

Milan Kundera in his Art of the Novel, once said:

The word "kitsch" describes the attitude of those who want to please the greatest number, at any cost. To please, one must confirm what everyone wants to hear, put oneself at the service of received ideas. Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.

Perhaps there were no tears, but a hyper-awareness of banality was certainly palpable at the Mark Morris Dance Group’s show last weekend at Cal Performances’ season in Berkeley. And, as Kundera suggests, there was also the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.

The program included the world premiere of Something Lies Beyond the Scene, set to witty poems by Edith Sitwell; Resurrection, with witty costumes by Isaac Mizrahi; Lucky Charms, to witty music by Jacques Ibert; and Foursome, a witty conception of…well, you get the point. More than half of Mark Morris’s appeal has probably to do with his jaunty, unconventional forays into the world of movement, but this was, as my companion put it, “like being hit with a ‘witty’-stick.” And yet, here is one of America’s premier modern dance companies, jam-packed with wonderful dancers, who could toss off difficult choreography as if they were strolling through the park. Only A Lake, Morris’s 1991 ballet to the Haydn Horn Concerto No. 2, gave us a glimpse of the fineness of the dancers without any showbiz veneer, but even there, their performance was rather polite and contained, in a way that seemed antithetical to Morris’s usual exuberant style.

Resurrection, a work Morris premiered at the American Dance Festival this year, opened the program, with a warning over the loudspeaker that there would be the sounds of gunshots. Apparently even this far from Maryland, we’re a little jumpy about snipers. Clad in boldly-patterned black and white tailored pajamas, the fourteen dancers enacted a loosely-told tale of a girl who is shot and killed, then comes back to life, and her lover, who is also shot, killed and resurrected, all to Richard Rodgers’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Sexiness was not a part of this version, so anyone with stockinged legs and high heels imprinted on their brains, with memories of Balanchine’s high kicks and deeply arched backs, or a longing for a sultry, slinky atmosphere was bound to feel a little cheated. As the lead couple, Shawn Gannon and Maile Okamura were certainly cute, but not much more than that was demanded of them.

Something Lies Beyond The Scene, which was choreographed to recitations of Sitwell poems from her book Façade, and music by William Walton, required a little more than cuteness. There were lively, technically complicated antics for the ten dancers, all clad in bright t-shirts bearing symbols vaguely relating to the poems, which were read by four of the dancers from the company. One imaginative set piece was the “Lullaby for Jumbo”, in which eight dancers contrived to form a giant head of an elephant with lazily flapping ears and a convincingly prehensile trunk. Overall, however, there was little that seemed new or unexpected.

Possibly the most successful work of the evening was the self-mocking Foursome, which featured Morris himself, along with long-time company member Guillermo Resto, Gannon, and John Heginbotham. The arrangement of Erik Satie pieces, interspersed with Johann Hummel’s Seven Hungarian Dances sounds like a peculiar mix, but the combination worked well, and pianist Katherine McDowell, accompanied the dancers beautifully. The whole humour of the work, though, hinges on the audience’s familiarity with Mark Morris, the personality. One could almost interpret much of the work as a behind-the-scenes peek at the Mark Morris Dance Group characters. Half-abstractedly, Morris indicates a movement, which is echoed in full by the others. He looks to one side, he points. You could just imagine Morris, in a loud orange shirt, Bermuda shorts, socks and sandals, running a rehearsal like this, with dancers and assistants flitting about trying to decipher and perform his wishes.

The Mark Morris Dance Group does present a very professional show. They continue to honor their commitment to provide live music at every performance, a welcome relief in these days of tinny music and poorly designed sound. Robert Cole conducted the very capable Berkeley Symphony Orchestra for all of the pieces save for Foursome. And the lighting design, particularly Michael Chybowski’s moody accents for Foursome, helped often to heighten the pseudo-dramatic effects. You have to ask though, why is so much of Morris’s recent work looking dull and forced and... well... kitschy. All that I can say is that it looks as though you could pick out the works he really had his heart in from the ones that don’t interest him, but which he needs to finish because of commitments. Pieces d’occasion, such as the dry solo, Later, created for retiring San Francisco Ballet principal Joanna Berman, seem hastily thrown together. Foursome is funny in that self-deprecating, wink-and-a-nod manner that Morris perfected back with The Hard Nut, and, for that matter, later revived with Lucky Charms, while commissioned works like Resurrection look positively recidivist. But if it’s all so funny, then why do his company members not look as if they’re having much fun at all, until they arrive at the curtain calls, at which point big grins break out across their faces? Could it be that they, like us, are relieved when it’s over?


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Edited by Marie.

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