Monday, September 29, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group

presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
September 28th, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group’s fall engagement at Cal Performances demonstrated the evolving nature and breadth of neoclassical dance. Program A brought a collection of four Bay Area premieres. Two were solid old-school neoclassical compositions with the requisite technical proficiency, unexpected (and delightful) movement choices and musical exploration. The other two pieces on the program pushed the boundaries of this stylistic genre, stretching the form even further with both innovative physical syllabi and cutting-edge conceptual approaches.

Program A opened with Morris’ “The Muir” (2010), a work for three men and three women, featuring stunning vocalists cycling through a set of enchanting folk songs. “The Muir” was a pretty traditional example of neoclassical dance, with movements that punctuated and emphasized the score. Full of clever and humorous moments - the men crawling along the floor to a pulsating beat, the waving and pointing hand gestures, miming empty pockets – it was like a tongue in cheek court dance. Yet the ending was somber and heavy as one sole dancer was left alone on the stage. “The Muir” is a physically demanding piece for the entire cast, though the men’s choreography stole the show. There was only one problematic step that recurred throughout – the attitude derriere. It was neither turned out nor parallel; this ‘in between state’ looked unintentional, and frankly, a little sloppy.

2012’s “A Wooden Tree” followed – an ensemble dance set again to folk music, this time by Ivor Cutler. The cast looked like a group of hipsters (a comically unstable group at times) at a social dance club. Again Morris’ movement reflected the score, but this time that interpretation was taken to a new level. The words/lyrics were also visually incorporated into the dance and into the interactions between the dancers - the women’s telegraph sequence was particularly phenomenal.

Following intermission, company dancers Sam Black and Jenn Weddel took the stage in Morris’ “Jenn and Spencer” (2013), another dance that spoke to the new neoclassicism. Everything about this piece was narratively charged, and the pas de deux had a sustained drama and tumult. Even the slower phrases lacked tenderness, instead replaced by a
Morris' "Jenn and Spencer"
Photo: Stephanie Berger
wildness and constant coiled energy. Black and Weddel danced Morris’ complex choreography with skill, aptitude and abandon. One particular highlight was Weddel’s circuit of gorgeous leg extensions, while Black inched forward on the floor. “Jenn and Spencer” is a force, and incidentally, featured the most groundbreaking choreography and gutsiest performances on this program.

Closing the day was 2011’s “Festival Dance”, which took the audience full circle, returning to time-honored neoclassicism. “Festival Dance” is a full cast extravaganza, with ample partnering, and lovely, joyful, flowing movement phrases. In the rondo section of the piece, there is a particularly impressive spinning lift, where the women flip their body and leg position mid-spin. It was so free and expansive.

While Program A did show the breadth of the neoclassical genre, the actual repertory choices overlapped too much. Even though the music was different, the costumes were different and the casting was different, three of the four pieces had a folksy, social dance thing going on. And stylistically, “Festival Dance” and “The Muir” were very similar. “Festival Dance” may be a tiny bit more technical, with slightly more character vocabulary, but the two pieces that bookended Program A were a little too alike for my taste.

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