Jacob’s Pillow: Mark Morris Dance Group Musician in the form of a dancer


BECKET -- The recent dances Mark Morris has brought to Jacob’s Pillow reveal that he has outgrown his early reputation as the "bad boy of modern dance," and become a very good boy indeed.

In residence here with Yo-Yo Ma to make the 1997 film "Falling Down Stairs" which is danced to a Bach cello suite, Morris forged a link between dance and live classical music of the highest order. They intertwine and blossom in recent works introduced to Pillow audiences this week.

Walking the line between art forms and embracing both, Morris brought the Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble to Tanglewood every year from 2003 to 2013. Last year, he staged Benjamin Britten’s opera "Curlew River" and Purcell’s "Dido and Aeneas" with Pillow dancers and Tanglewood Music Center fellows. On the West Coast, he was the first choreographer to be named director of the Ojai Music Festival.

So it is fitting that on this week’s program sheet, the live music to be heard is right under his name, and names of the highly credentialed musicians under that. Dancers’ names appear only after other production credits.

Artistically, there is another reason for not placing the dancers’ names up front. Morris tends to highlight the ensemble rather than the soloist. A dancer prancing about like a classical diva from "Swan Lake" or "Giselle" is probably a snarky Morris joke. In his patterns, dancers run and circle, group and pull apart, with exuberant energy, like taffy -- or Silly Putty. No one is taller or shorter than the others.

This week’s four dances are from the past three years. Three had premieres at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, which Morris has made into a center for community dance and related activity.

"Crosswalk," which explores ways -- nice and less so -- to get across the stage, is performed to the three-movement Grand Duo Concertant by Carl Maria von Weber. The clarinetist was the respected Todd Palmer, the pianist, Colin Fowler, New York University professor and the troupe’s music director.

Elizabeth Kurtzman costumed girls in orange, boys in black and white. Laurel Lynch was first to walk forward from the back of the stage and get swiftly bumped and flattened onto the floor, as others walked obliviously on. Some knocked people over, or teamed up for defense and strength. The ploy didn’t quite make it through the finale, despite the warm lighting by Michael Chybowski, and a relatively static section reflected a slight lack of material -- like the Weber, in fact.

Songs in "A Wooden Tree" were made up around 1975 by Ivor Cutler, a Scottish poet and humorist (and at a guess, a latent drunk dialer). The casual clothes, striped sweater vests, wiggling and folk dancing created a pub atmosphere without a shred of scenery.

Cutler’s voiceover (a rare non-live performance but Pillow acoustics are clean and strong) included a witty song listing the places where you give me a pain, and a duet where he wants to marry but she’s already marrying Paul, Louie, Jack and Jerry. One of the most eccentric texts: "I spread my brains out on the table and poke them about with a fork. So I’ve got no common sense and neither has nobody else." Ensemble dancers went on twirling, partnering one another and having a pubby good time.

"Jenn and Spencer," with Jenn Weddel and Sam Black (Spencer left) was made into a fabulous realization of Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano. Jenn was in a sleeveless lavender gown, "Spencer" in a white shirt and gray slacks, by Stephanie Sleeper. In mirrored unison, they displayed a formal pas de deux structure, dancing together and in variations, in calisthenic love. At one point he was on his back while she stood over him, maneuvering his legs. At another, he stood, and she wound around him down to the floor.

"Festival Dance," for six couples, is set to a piano trio by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Teetering between Classical and Romantic, it was a festive piece of core repertory one can’t quite place. Dancers in front of a green backdrop wore circle skirts and sweaters, running and spinning, grabbing a passing hand without losing momentum, and with no stops for posing. Maile Okamura and Brian Lawson made a light fond pair, joyful in each other’s company. Despite a couple of banal passages, it was clear that they’re all glad to be alive, and in this troupe. The last quick hug was emblematic.


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