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The Mark Morris Dance Group returned to Durham to close the American Dance Festival's 2007 season with a rousing performance in Page Auditorium. The performance repeats on the 20th and 21st, and a children's matinee will precede Morris' acceptance of this year's Scripps Award for lifetime achievement in dance on the 21st.
Morris' dances are the product of a broad, humane, cultivated intelligence that is all too rare in any age but that seems especially valuable in this era. At some point in my lifetime, "high" culture became despicable, and consumer "culture" became the guiding oxymoron of the time. Somehow "art is for everybody" became "everybody's an artist," which is so patently false that it would be amusing — except for the amount of self-centered dross that attitude encourages (and a little of which we have seen this ADF season). Yet here is Morris, illuming the sometimes dreary present with a brilliance that synthesizes the past and smiles at the future. Elsewhere, things may be broken, but Morris still believes in aesthetic unity, in wholeness, in connectedness. And he wants that wholeness expressed with sublime skill.
His work fills me with hope. An incisive and wise observer of humans, sharply funny, a maker of shapes and a master of rhythms, and a thoroughly modern man, Morris is also a nouveau Romantic who lets the feeling flow. If there is any dross to be skimmed from his oeuvre, I haven't seen it yet. As a program, this concert could perhaps use a little more variation, but each piece works on the viewer in a different way — and all are wonderful.
Asking which came first, dance or music, is like asking about the chicken and the egg. Who knows? Who cares? — as long as they keep on begetting one another.... With Morris, the dance and the music are inseparable. With the dancers come the musicians — the MMDG Ensemble — and what a difference it makes to the art. If you didn't know this before, you'd know it from the first bars of Robert Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston, the music for Morris' "The Argument," as James Wilson's plangent cello and Steven Beck's warm piano rise to twine and struggle and repel and reconcile again and again. Led by Charlton Boyd and (NC School of the Arts graduate) Julie Worden, the six dancers — three couples — move through a short story of passionate entanglements. The vocabulary is simple, but the emotional range is rich and nuanced. The dancing, of course, is beautiful.
Next comes "All Fours" with Bartók's String Quartet No. 4. The dance (with sharp lighting and black and white costuming) is an almost incredible realization of the music, with all its spiky angular qualities and sudden reversals. The twelve dancers pivot everything that can be pivoted — there's a wonderful repeated move where one thigh is raised parallel to the floor and the lower leg swung and snapped around from the knee. There are lots of triangular patterns and quick shooting movements, and there is a mercurial quality to the sudden reverses of motion or direction that is deeply affecting. The second section (Prestissimo, con sardino), danced by Craig Biesecker and Bradon McDonald, was particularly powerful on the 19th.
The newest work on the program premiered in January to great acclaim. "Italian Concerto," danced with the Bach Italian Concerto in F major, S.971, played with gusto by Colin Fowler, is truly delightful. Morris' zest for life is such a tonic. He's a saturated color kind of guy — no pastels — and the five dancers wear vivid hues. Amber Darragh is memorable in orange. The dancers take advantage of the music's sewing machine quality with a giggly humor, but they also find its big shapes. I kept thinking of Matisse when David Leventhal drew his body through space into some crimson-clad abstraction — but then when Joe Bowie decorated his boldly up-stretched arms with tiny expressive motions of his fingertips, I was sent to a place of embroidered brocades. In the "Italian Concerto" many details embellish a pattern of splendid shapes.
The evening concludes with "Grand Duo" set to Lou Harrison's "Grand Duo for violin and piano." There are only two instruments, but there are fourteen dancers and a stage-full of atavistic grandeur. Circling and stamping, leaping and interlacing, the dancers link us back through all human time. For all his sophistication and cerebral brilliance, Morris is a magician of the ancient mysteries and knows the visceral powers of the dance. He wields them here, in a glorious, heart-pounding finale to the ADF's 30th thrilling year in North Carolina.