Mark Morris Debuts Festival Dance, Doug Varone Give Chapters From a Broken Novel Its New York Premiere

More work from veteran choreographers, male edition

If you listen to pop music these days, you probably wag your head and jerk your shoulders with the beat. But there’s other music that sets your feet tapping and makes you itch to get up and dance, whether it’s a Strauss waltz, a Handel gigue, or Earl Scruggs playing bluegrass. More often than most choreographers, Mark Morris—who made his first professional appearances in a convivial Balkan folkdance company—choreographs steps and patterns that make his expert and musical dancers look as if they’re doing this for their own pleasure. And for our pleasure. The Mark Morris Dance Group is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary by presenting a world premiere and two New York premieres in the James and Martha Duffy Performance Space in Brooklyn’s Mark Morris Dance Center.

The world premiere, which closes the program, is aptly titled Festival Dance. While pianist Colin Fowler, violinist Jesse Mills, and cellist Andrew Janss play the lovely Piano Trio No. 5 in E Major by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (a protégé of Mozart), Morris creates the image of a society of 12 celebrating love and community with garlands and vines and whirlpools of dancing.

Festival Dance’s opening Allegro in waltz time begins with a couple tightly embraced. That position and motifs from the ensuing gentle, happy duet for Rita Donahue and Aaron Loux recur—varied—for different performers amid a sprightly flow of dancing in which duets may become threesomes and quartets dissolve into pairs or multiply into eight-person, hand-in-hand chains. Morris is prodigious at turning one spatial pattern inside out and magicking it into something new.

Mark Morris’s Petrichor, with Elisa Clark (foreground)
Brian Snyder
Mark Morris’s Petrichor, with Elisa Clark (foreground)
Doug Varone’s Chapters from a Broken Novel (Alex Springer holding Erin Owen, Natalie Desch at right).
Yi-Chun Wu
Doug Varone’s Chapters from a Broken Novel (Alex Springer holding Erin Owen, Natalie Desch at right).

Martin Pakledinaz has dressed the denizens of this contented world simply. The women wear off-white blouses and full skirts in hues ranging from dark green and maroon to charcoal gray with brown belts. The men’s long-sleeved T-shirts are dark gray and their belted pants light tan. Several times, men carry their partners across the stage; the women, facing us, split their legs so they appear to be arrested in a flying leap, revealing a band of red inside the hem of their skirts.

Hummel’s Andante is a march, and Morris turns it into what might be a wedding celebration, with a lot of calm, easy walking. The delicious vision he constructs is that Laurel Lynch and William Smith III are each embedded in, framed by, and tenderly supported by a group of four. When the quartets divide into two diagonal lines, Lynch and Smith raise their joined hands high and, running, bridge each four-person stream (I think suddenly of a similar design in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco). But the foursomes also break intermittently into couples; these folks have other fish to fry today. The final Rondo—a polka—ratchets up the tempo and the gaiety, but the dance ends as it began, with Donahue and Loux in each other’s arms.

Morris’s approach to music with sung lyrics can vary intriguingly. Sometimes his choreography mimics the words, sometimes it focuses on the whole mood of a given song, and sometimes it plays against the text. All tactics are on view in the charming sextet, The Muir, which is set to a selection of Beethoven’s arrangements of Scottish and Irish folk songs (for this the three above-mentioned instrumentalists are joined by excellent singers: mezzo-soprano Irene Snyder, tenor John Matthew Myers, and baritone Jorell Williams).

In “Cease your funning,” addressed by the singer to other women who’re flirting with her man, the dancers blow kisses, wave, and shake warning fingers. “The lovely lass of Inverness” (poem by Robert Burns) tells of a woman lamenting the loss of a father and three brothers. The music has the feel of a dead march, and although Amber Star Merkens is joined by the three men (Dallas McMurray, Noah Vinson, and Smith) in solemn, grieving processions, she ends alone on her knees, staring into space. Beethoven enriched and enlarges the possibilities lurking in these fragrant folk tunes, and Morris dives joyfully into the musical nuances as well as the words.

For “Sally in Our Alley,” he slides his tongue into his cheek. His Sally is not the
robust darling of some boy’s heart who “lives in our valley.” Celtic songs cause a mischievous person like Morris to remember the 1832 ballet La Sylphide, which was laid in Scotland, or maybe Balanchine’s Scottish Symphony. Although Lynch, like her friends, Merkens and Michelle Yard, is wearing a glamorous, full-skirted black dress (by Elizabeth Kurtzman) with colored ribbon patterns on the bodice hinting at plaid, she’s no ordinary neighborhood girl. Lynch drifts in and out, suspending herself in wafty arabesques while Vinson and McMurray dance ardently about, often not seeing her, and on the words, “my heart,” they make clutching gestures above their manly chests. Vinson tosses off some airy pas de chats himself.

The choreographer’s other New York premiere, Petrichor, is set to a score that’s less limpid and fluid: Heitor Villa-Lobos’s 1917 String Quartet No. 2, Op. 56. (Philip Kramp, viola, and Omar Guey, violin, join Mills and Janss). It’s full of sweet, restrained dissonances and, like many string quartets, dense with related sounds, sometimes almost sandpapery in texture.

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