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Since 1978, Durham, North Carolina has become the center of the modern dance world during the sweltering summer months, as the American Dance Festival has brought the leading companies, as well as newcomers, to the Duke University campus and the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC). One of those leading companies, and one which has become a favorite and a regular of the festival, is the Mark Morris Dance Group. They closed out the 2012 season with what they do best: beautifully choreographed and executed works and a commitment to dance education and the desire to make dance a community event, especially for children.
The MMDG is a Brooklyn-based dance company, formed in 1980 and named for its founder and artistic visionary. Morris is an enormously talented individual who extends his reach not only to choreography, but to directing and even conducting opera. It is most likely because of his close association with music, and his early training, that his is one of the companies that, with few exceptions, always use live musicians in all of their programs. It goes even further than that. His dance creations exude a feeling of naturalness and eschew any sense of artifice; this extends to the musical performance. The musicians for this performance were pianist Colin Fowler, violinist Anna Elashvli and cellist Julia Maclaine. Despite the enormity of DPAC, all music was played without amplification of any kind. Since I was in the fifth row it was impossible to say what it sounded like in the second balcony, but, like a well-known guitarist once said, “If you’re having trouble hearing, I will play a little softer.”
This program consisted of four selections ranging from one of the MMDG’s earliest creations to one premiered little more than a year ago. The first was Canonic ¾ Studies, premiered in 1982 in Morris’s hometown of Seattle. Based on a group of piano waltzes of various composers arranged by Harriet Cavalli, this is a perfect starter to introduce the audience to the current dancers in the troupe and to experience a work that was near the genesis of the company. Filled with humor and a wide swath of movement from herky-jerky to awe-inspiring fluidity and athleticism, this was a perfect opener and example of the MMDG style.
Although it is certainly not unusual to have a work choreographed to slow music, when I saw that the celebrated 2004 Rock of Ages is danced to the glacier-like tempo of Schubert’s single movement Piano Trio in E-flat, I was a bit surprised. Written in Schubert’s dying days, this is the personification of stillness and the clock running out. Morris’ transformation of this music into movement was quite masterful. Simple gestures with an arm or a turn of the head evoked a gravitas that accentuated the nearly unbearable pathos of the superb playing. A perfect marriage of dance and music, this appeared to me to be Morris’ acknowledgement of a nearly 200 year-old tortured soul, and he and the dancers simply saying “I understand.”
Like any artistic endeavor, sometimes you just need to show off and this was the case with the two-man virtuosic Silhouettes. This was danced by Samuel Black and Domingo Estrada, Jr, with one in what looked like dark underwear, bare legs and a big floppy shirt, while the other was in sort-of sweatpants and shirtless. The quirky nature of the music, Silhouettes, Five Pieces for Piano by Richard Cumming, added to and complemented the tremendous energy and vitality of these two dance virtuosi.
It is Mark Morris’s eclectic background and experience as a musician that led him to create a work based on a musical piece that not only most choreographers would never consider, but that most musicians even overlook. Such is the case with the closing Festival Dance, set to the rarely heard/played fifth piano trio of Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Premiered in March, 2011 in the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, this is a tour de force full company extravaganza. The simple and clean lines of the costumes and the effective but non-intrusive lighting enhance the spirit of this grand ensemble piece. The slow second movement was especially poignant and moving, leading into the spirited final Rondo. Here, Morris expertly matched the music with the entire company coming together at the recurring theme in a quasi barn dance, separated by a pas de deux or varying subsets. The MMDG is a sterling example of artistic excellence that comes from having dwelled in all aspects of the arts.