Mark Morris Dance Group

'L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato'

'Going Away Party,' 'All Fours,' 'Serenade,' 'Grand Duo'

by Lisa Claybaugh

September 5 and 12, 2003 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

The Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with two triumphant programs. The company looked stronger and sleeker than ever. Their new home in Brooklyn must be treating them well. They looked well rehearsed and well adjusted, not an easy feat in today’s non-profit arts economy.

The one word to describe “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” is sublime. Although this evening length work has been seen in the San Francisco Bay Area before, I had not seen it. I had seen the book. I had even made knock-offs of the dual-layered chiffon costumes for a local choreographer, but I had never seen the piece itself. It is a grand work; it is one of the first full-lengths Mark Morris choreographed and made possible by his residency in Brussels at the time.

With a full orchestra, chorus, costume shop and scene shop at his fingertips, Mr. Morris was able to make a lovely work of high production value, large in scope and movement with a unified artistic vision. The piece is set to the music of Handel, a master of the Baroque style, with words by Milton. The libretto was included in the program, which was nice touch as the singers were, predictably, barely comprehensible and many of the movements are directly connected to the text of the songs. A long section regarding the nature of birds allowed the dancers (particularly Julie Worden and David Leventhal) to do their best homage to "Swan Lake." Although it could have looked ridiculous, the levity was balanced with earnest beauty.

This work has been called a masterpiece. In many ways it is. It is masterfully structured, gleaning its cues from the musical structure directly and the basics of good composition. There was a constant stream of development and recapitulation within sections and among them. Glorious running was a recurrent theme. Battalions of dancers (well, really only 24) ran in large sweeping and intertwining arcs across the stage with hands uplifted and smiling joyously. This is not a sharp piece. It is soft and exquisite, luminous and handsome and extremely well danced. Particular stand outs included the previously mention Julie Worden, Maile Okamura, Joe Bowie, and Lauren Grant.

The mixed repertory program included three previous works and a world premiere. The first piece, “Going Away Party,” was typical Morris comedy fare set to vintage county music by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. However, there was an underlying sense of lost love and loneliness running the course of the piece, subtly demonstrated by the use of four men and three women which always left someone out. Morris interspersed various country and western dances through the piece to bring it back to its musical roots. Charlton Boyd was particularly empathetic as a cowboy waiting for someone (who?) to come to his party.

The premiere, “All Fours,” was commissioned in part by Cal Performances, featured twelve dancers and was set to Bartok’s String Quartet #4. This was pure musical interpretation, serious in nature and spare in design. Eight dancers dressed in drab black street clothes opened the piece with rapid arm movements, intricate footwork and a good dose of angst. It is during choreography like this, set to music by Eastern European composers, that Mr. Morris’ folk dance background floats to the surface.

The first movement was followed by an extremely long pause, obviously unintended, which was interrupted by Morris himself yelling, “Hello! Did we break a string?” When the remaining quartet members answered in the affirmative, Morris instructed his dancers (Craig Biesecker and Bradon McDonald) to rest, as they had been holding a pose for several minutes, and talked conversationally to the audience about this being the attraction of live theater. Once the violist came back with a new string the performance continued without further incident. The transitions in this four-movement piece were particularly well done. As the dancers in the section were exiting the dancers in the next section would wander on before the blackout. The four soloists were dressed in varying shades of white and indulged in some intricate partnering during the third movement before dissolving into a lovely duet for the two women (Julie Worden and Marjorie Folkman). This duet was reminiscent of the women’s duet from an earlier Morris piece set to the Vivaldi “Gloria.”

Morris himself performed one of the two pieces set to the music of Lou Harrison. “Serenade” is considered by Morris himself to be a tribute to the composer. He happened to be working on it when the composer died. The first section of the piece showcases one of Morris’ most striking features - his exquisite arms. He sits on a box in black hakama and white wrap-around shirt with a spot focused only on his upper body. It is a striking image. He proceeds to play with a series of objects: a copper pipe, a fan, and castanets. The footwork again is intricate and percussive. The flamenco boy was revealed. The piece itself was a rich fusion of Asian and Spanish influences like the music itself.

The last piece on the program “Grand Duo” was also set to Lou Harrison music, "Grand Duo for Violin and Piano," for fourteen dancers in varying dark shades of satin. The piece starts with the fourteen dancers in two lines facing randomly front and back executing a rather lengthy phrase in canon. Use of level was particularly interesting in this piece. Most striking were images using the entire group of dancers, especially the final section with all fourteen dancers in a large circle dancing a meditative phrase
in unison. This was quite refreshing after what seemed like a frenzy of coupling and un-couplings in the previous sections.

Mark Morris really is proving himself to be a master of composition. He is no longer the young upstart dismissed and then embraced by the critics, but a bona fide choreographic force to be admired or rejected, depending on your taste. Whatever his quirks, it all comes back to the music, and in this area he is unparalleled.

Edited by Jeff.

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