The master of musicality, Mark Morris delivers four gems, although a little light on angst.

The Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
June 3, 2015

The language of modern dance can all too often reside in an emotional and aesthetical territory that feels fraught, earnest and intimidatingly cerebral. Whether it be the sleek, hyper-extensions of Wayne McGregor, the startling complexities of William Forsythe, the juddering, dystopian fury of Hofesh Shechter, or the frenetic energy of Rafael Bonachela, contemporary choreography is largely a medium for communicating serious profundity.

However one of America’s most exalted dance makers, Mark Morris, has a very different message in mind. His muse is music and his subject, more often than not, is unashamed, unselfconscious joy. As a fervent and outspoken advocate for the use of live musicians in his work, and as a devotee of classical repertoire, few dance artists can rival Morris’ peerless reputation for being one of the most musical choreographers around. So in tune with his sense of musicality, Morris has for the past decade also conducted his company’s resident ensemble, as well as occasionally taking engagements to direct opera. Little wonder then, that for the Mark Morris Dance Group’s first appearance in Sydney since 2003, a mixed bill of four contrasting works from the last twenty years, offered a showcase of Morris’ ability to transmute music into movement.

The oldest piece on the bill, created in 1995 for the San Francisco Ballet, Pacific is a serene evocation of an island culture. Set to Lou Harrison’s Trio for violin, cello and piano, this work was originally conceived for the ethereal physicality of ballet bodies, but here, rearticulated on the more robustly built dancers of Morris’ company, the movement takes on a ritualistic, elemental character. Both the backdrop and the simple, flowing costumes of the first three movements are assigned a different colour – blue, green, and then red – as if delineating tribal allegiances, before the full company of nine dancers finally combine in a vibrant, kaleidoscopic rite of colour and movement. The dance has a primal quality about it, but is nonetheless precisely phrased, juxtaposing controlled, clean, angular extensions, with drooping, loose-limbed, hunched forms. There is the impression that these figures, all costumed in full-length skirts, the men bare-chested, are marionettes, manipulated with strings by some higher power, and here the puppet-master is unquestionably the music.

A Wooden Tree

In stark contrast to the bright, radiant aesthetic of Pacific, Morris’ response to the piano music of Debussy, specifically Des pas sur la neige, Etude pour les notes répétées, and La cathédrale engloutie is a far darker, more subtle work. Premiered in April this year, Whelm, is a bold departure for Morris, who even now, at the age of 58, is still clearly a restless inventor. Across a black stage, four shadowy figures, barely visible in the dim light, engage in a surreal, bleak dreamscape, drenched in a sinister narrative significance of we know not what. The choreography is fractured and complex, and while it still has glimpses of the broad, symmetrical, open shapes we might expect from a work by Morris, there is a laboured, deliberate intensity about this mysterious composition that some may find frustratingly ambiguous. 

Breaking his own cardinal rule by using a pre-recorded soundtrack, and for very good reason, A Wooden Tree is an irreverent, idiosyncratic and utterly uplifting celebration of the nonsense poetry of Ivor Cutler. Through a sequence of 14 of Culter’s short, simple songs, that are at once brazenly hilarious and heart-meltingly human, a vagabond collection of eight dancers, dressed in old hand-me-downs, enact a series of surreal scenarios of life, love, death, drink and more than a little sex. With only three mismatched chairs for set, and using a disarmingly informal combination of literal mime, scruffy, hoedown steps and infantile gyrations, Morris perfectly and accessibly captures the lunacy and tenderness of Cutler’s whimsical musings. However Morris’ genius here is to disguise the technical complexities of this work as something the audience feel they could easily have a bash at themselves. In breaking down the perceived barriers between audience and performer, the immediacy with which A Wooden Tree is able to capture the attention is elating.

Perhaps the most archetypal example of Morris however, was the evening’s final piece, Festival Dance. Here Morris’ affinity for the score, another piano trio, this time by Johann Hummel, is writ large in the spooling flow of the choreography, as the counterpoint of the music is visibly translated into the layers of the dance. This is a vision of a wholesome, earthy arcadia, verdant and jubilant but not unobtainable. The movement has a rural, folksy character, as dancers pair up, swirl joyously and sprint across the stage. However, unlike the deliberately unrefined, chaotic and sometimes vulgar quality of A Wooden Tree, here we find the artful, controlled extensions and echoes of classical ballet that form the back bone of Morris’ work. This tranquil, pleasant scene is delightful to behold, but may feel overly sanitised for those who like their dance with a little more angst.

The Mark Morris Dance Group perform at the Sydney Opera House until June 6.