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Seeing the Music: Mark Morris Wraps Up the ADF

July 23, 2009 - Durham, NC:


The American Dance Festival is closing out its 2009 season with the highly musical Mark Morris Dance Group in a mixed bill that includes some entrancing bits of Americana. The five-dance program in the Durham Performing Arts Center, although without new work or any real surprises, places a perky star at the end of ADF’s first season on that new large stage.

One of the great pleasures of seeing the MMDG dancing is its uncanny ability to actualize sound. You feel you are seeing the music. Being highly visual, I find this delightful, and in some cases the experience brings me to a far greater appreciation of the music, as with the evening opener, the 1991 dance A Lake, set to Hadyn’s Horn Concerto No. 2 in D. A friend describes Hadyn as caught in the hall between two great musical periods — but this hall might better be described as a long, gracious saloon, filled with clear north light and looking out onto an ordered landscape. The three movements progress with a cheerful rationality, clear structure, and nice balance between individual and ensemble unison dancing. Every time the piece begins to feel a little long, something happens that is like metaphorical bunny cavorting through the scene — the pellucid Lake is saved by silliness, and we can return to glorying in its controlled grace.

An even better rescue from excess seriousness arrives with the solo Peccadillos (2000), set to music by Erik Satie, played by Colin Fowler on toy piano. What a hoot! Here’s Joe Bowie in a striped shirt, prancing his feet and sweeping his fine arms, adding a rhythm section with his stamping, clapping and slapping, while off to the side the pianist sits folded on the floor, tinkling out the tunes on the tiny instrument. The subtle lighting enhances the emotional oddity of the music through color shifts, changing both the background and the dancer’s skin tone.

The newest work on the program is Excursions, from 2008, set to Samuel Barber’s Excursions for the Piano (Op. 20 — with the four movements played in reverse order). Barber, in 1942, was mining American roots music — you could call this piece alt-classical. It is rich with riffs from great American styles, and the dance follows suit, from its swing-your-pardner opening, through the darkening struggles following the melody from “Streets of Laredo,” to the bluesy syncopations and joyously outflung arm of the final section. Equally strong — and using some of the same spatial devices — is the 2005 Candleflowerdance, to the wonderful Stravinsky Serenade in A. This is the most oppositional dance of the evening, filled with sequences that require the dancers to press against, even contradict each other. The flow of its massing and spacing is utterly thrilling.

The American themes echo in the night’s last dance, Going Away Party (1990). Don’t be sad — it’s Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys(!) swinging us through a sassy romp full of waltzing, two-stepping, tight jeans, and flirty skirts. The company’s tiny Lauren Grant was especially power-packed and completely adorable in her red shoes. When it is time to say goodbye, all we can do is echo Bob Wills and say: Awwwww… until we meet again.

The Mark Morris Dance Group continues at ADF through Saturday, July 25. See our calendar for details.