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.

The word petrichor refers to the scent dry earth emits after a rainfall, and Morris’s choreography gives the eight women of the company the look of both desert blooms and running streams. Kurtzman’s costumes aid this impression. The dancers (those mentioned, plus Lauren Grant, Jenn Weddel, and Julie Worden) wear very short, full, sleeveless tunics—some gray, others fuschia, red, or orange—made of a translucent, floaty material that creates its own turbulence; the pale, shiny leotards underneath them, when bared by the movements or revealed through Michael Chybowski’s lighting, give a somewhat distracting impression of naked opalescent buttocks.

The women look like beautifully earthy sea nymphs as they course across the stage or stand and hold up various combinations of fingers in some kind of hieratic gesture or pause to lift an invisible object (a shell?) to one ear. Morris could even be imagined as channeling Isadora Duncan and fashioning her simple, windblown air and the relaxed fullness of her skips, turns, and falls into shifting group patterns and brief individual tides and flurries. The music is not just a floor for the choreography; it seems to be releasing it into the air.

The movement is not all fluid though. In an image that evokes Isadora’s Furies, one or more performer lunges leftward on her right leg, bends down a little, and directs her arms and her gaze back to the right. Maintaining that oppositional pull, she pulses up and down with small, sharp accents. And Villa-Lobos’s final section, an Allegro Deciso, is fast but not joyous. The dancers make a number of entries in pairs, grasping one another’s arms or shoulders, one advancing, the other walking backward, as if they’re poised for combats that never happen. The music boils into a fury, but although the dance ends with six women falling forward, two are still flying around.

As a 30th birthday party, Morris’s concert beats cake and candles. You can’t blow out these flames.

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Doug Varone’s company is stocked with seven wonderfully individual dancers, and the choreographer cherishes that, but he presents them as a tribe. However different from one another they may look, they also seem bred in his particular style and the messages it conveys. Most of the time, they move with luxurious amplitude and free flow; rarely does a movement look stopped, unless they collapse onto the floor. They travel with slightly bent knees, the better to rebound into motion. Their encounters are messy, ephemeral; they slip past, glance off one another, connect in poignantly raw and clumsy ways. They hide their perfection as dancers in order to convey humanity.

Varone’s latest work, Chapters From a Broken Novel, seen in its New York premiere during the company Joyce season, represents a new approach. The group has had a residency at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA since 2006, and over the course of putting together the 74-minute piece in 2009-2010, he had six open-to-the-public working sessions at the Y. The techniques he employed in collaboration with the dancers suit the fragmentary nature of Chapters. Its 20 parts, some of them very short, were influenced by quotes from books and movies, as well as from snippets of overheard conversations. The program lists the titles of the sections, but I wish Varone had included the quotes that inspired them, the way choreographers working to songs sometimes provide the lyrics.

The titles are also projected onto the looped white fabric that provides a moveable ceiling for Chapters (set design by Andrew Lieberman), and while some of them need no explanation, however enigmatic, quotes might help certain dancey passages that are more oblique in intent. I find myself remembering best the passages that were the most powerfully expressive, such as “Glass,” one of two duets for Netta Yerushalmy and Ryan Corriston, in which extreme tenderness crackles with an anger that’s intensified by a tremendous, calamitous electronic percussion score by David Van Tieghem (augmented in performance by the composer on an array of instruments and devices).

I’d like to be able to grasp “The Ghosts of Insects” in the way that I do the wrenching “Erased by Degrees,” in which the performers, one by one, dance at Erin Owen. Each short passage affects her like a blow, and eventually the blows are real. Eddie Taketa digs into her belly as if eviscerating her; Natalie Desch slaps her. Shaking and jerking, Owen is alone. It’s not that you want everything to be this clear. You may not know what Yerushalmy is re-living in “Twelve Dreams for Rent,” but her terrific performance, like a trailer for a movie, flashes 12 powerful, very diverse experiences in a very few minutes.

Jane Cox’s lighting sets many scenes and complements the atmosphere of fragmentation and unfinished business and alters the look of Liz Prince’s gray and blue palette for the costumes. Cox lays windows of light on the floor, then makes them disappear. One corner of the stage may briefly take on a new color. Follow spots seek to capture Alex Springer as he dances his solo, “Target.” Taketa, alone and still or slowly marching in “Funeral,” is bathed in bluish light.

Chapters as a whole is a rich, ragged piece seething with the kinds of forces that confound us. By the time Julia Burrer enters quietly to end the performance with “The Final Proverb,” you feel as if you’ve lived through something as intense, as flawed, as messy, as gripping, as touched with beauty, and as worthy of love as any old day. If you’re among the lucky.

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