28 April 2015

Mark Morris' Spring

The Mark Morris Dance Group performing Spring, Spring, Spring (2013). Photo: Peg Skorpinski

Sunday I spent the afternoon doing one of my favourite things—watching the Mark Morris Dance Group perform. I am an unabashed fan of Morris and his company and love any opportunity to see them. This time it was a program at BAM that included two works I’d seen before—Crosswalk and Jenn and Spencer—and one that was making its New York premiere—Spring, Spring, Spring.

The first part of the program opened with Crosswalk. Set to Carl Maria von Weber’s 1816 Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano, Op. 48, Crosswalk is a whimsical piece in which the dancers perform myriad movements from joyful leaps to somersaults to flapping their arms. One dancer even gets repeatedly knocked down. Towards the end, one of the women makes a running jump and is caught by the men who toss her up in the air and then carry off stage. It’s seamless and utterly delightful.

Jenn and Spencer (named for the two original dancers of the piece) is a duet set to Suite for Violin and Piano by Henry Cowell (1925). The two dancers (Jenn Weddel and Brandon Randolph) alternately grab for one another and push away, as if torn between desire and anger. It is the story of a relationship that ends with Jenn running off, leaving Spencer alone on the stage. Darkly beautiful, it's a perfect counterpoint to Crosswalk.

The second part of the program was the New York premiere of Spring, Spring, Spring, Morris’ version of The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky originally created for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. When it was first performed in Paris in 1913 it was considered scandalous and caused fights to break out in the audience (allegedly objects were thrown at the performers as well).

While no fights broke out this time round, Morris did make a major departure from the original music by presenting a jazz interpretation performed live by the trio The Bad Plus (Morris’ works almost always includes live musical accompaniment). Spring, Spring, Spring begins with a darkened stage and the playing of a recording of the overture. The crashing sounds of a piano announce The Bad Plus and the arrival of the dancers.

The 15 dancers are dressed like idealized versions of flower children—the women in short, Grecian dresses with flowers in their hair and the bare-chested men in colourful pants and wreaths of vines on their heads. Together they weave in and out, sometimes holding hands and dancing in circles, reminiscent of folk dances. They break into groups and the women twirl like little girls at play. The men meanwhile leap like spirited woodland creatures, a nod perhaps to the original ballet.

The Rite of Spring is a story of a pagan ritual in which a virgin sacrifices herself by dancing to death. In Spring, Spring, Spring no one dies making it the ultimate reinterpretation. This is yet another work that I'm happy to see added to the Morris canon. 

One note about the venue, the Howard Gillman Opera House at BAM is gorgeous (it was designed in the teens by Herts and Tallant who created the New Amsterdam Theatre) but I caution anyone with a fear of heights about sitting in the balcony. I had a seat in the front and the steep incline had me thinking I was going to have an attack of vertigo while I walked down to my row. So if you're not good with heights, opt for a seat lower in the house when you go.

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