Mark Morris Dance Group @ Sadler’s Wells, London

performed by
Craig Biesecker, Samuel Black, Joe Bowie, Elisa Clark, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada Jr, Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, John Heginbotham, David Leventhal, Laurel Lynch, Bradon McDonald, Dallas McMurray, Amber Star Merkens, Maile Okamura, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Julie Worden, Michelle Yard

directed by
Mark Morris
Mark Morris, who last year brought the world an alternative ‘original’ version of Prokofievs Romeo & Juliet, is renowned for taking audiences ‘inside’ a piece of music through the choreography that he applies to it.

And this week the Mark Morris Dance Group, which he founded in 1980, visits Sadlers Wells with two programmes consisting of several pieces each.

Morris has set dances to everything from Bach to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and has always argued that he is not there to make people understand music, although the dancing should help them to see it in a different way. He may be doing himself down when he says, “I make it up – you watch it. End of philosophy, but there is something very anti-intellectual” in his approach that makes his pieces highly accessible.
But by the same token that his approach invites us to make of his pieces what we will, we are, of course, free to declare it if they simply dont do much for us. And in programme one it is the first piece of the evening, Empire Garden, which premiered in April this year, that least captures the imagination.

Even here, however, the dancing is superlative. Set to music by Charles Ives, which is performed by violin, cello and piano, the ensemble of dancers intriguingly occupy a middle ground between appearing quite mechanistic as they move and yet almost rubbery. The dancers move in (far from fixed) groups, or act as individuals; confront us in lines, or alternatively stand, crouch or lie across several diagonals. There is a great sense of both connection and dislocation as dancers twist pairs of arms around each other, or revolve crab-like on all fours, one person above the other. Ultimately, however, the dancing still feels somewhat hollow. I am all for not being told what to think, but in the absence of greater guidance via a plot or other suitable mechanism, it all lacks a little in bite and depth.

Happily, no such criticism can be levied against the second and third dances. Bedtime, first performed in 1992, uses three Schubert songs, sung by the splendid Margaret Bragle and a quartet of men. The first, Wiegenland, op. 98, no. 2, is supported beautifully by the dancing as three angels appear to guard sleeping men, whilst the extraordinarily talented Elisa Clark dances invigoratingly amidst them. The dancing for Schuberts Stndchen, op. post. 135 D 920 is far more dynamic than I would ever have imagined the song could support, thus fulfilling Morriss aim of enabling us to hear it in a new light. Then Erlknig, op. 1 feels like one of Fuselis Gothic nightmare paintings with spirits of the night revelling against a black backdrop with streaking cloud, entirely in keeping with Goethes original poem about the death of a child assailed by a supernatural being.

The third piece, V, which premiered in 2001 and uses Robert Schumanns Quintet in E flat major for piano and strings, op. 44, sees the ensemble divided between those who wear loose blue shirts and shorts and those in sleeveless tops and silky green trousers. There are times when one group crawls across the stage whilst the other rises to walk in single file, perhaps saying something about progress or evolution. The colours, however, are also mixed and as the work advances, the leaps and bounds of individuals and trios of dancers across the stage are nothing short of mind-blowing.

The standard of dancing is never in question, and Morris ultimately fulfils his aim of using dance to shed new light on the pieces for us. Alongside Beethoven, programme two contains music from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and from Lou Harrison. That, I suspect, will elicit quite a different show, but I would be prepared to wager that the unique bond between the specific music being played and the dancing that it elicits remains just as strong.

Programme One is being performed on 27, 29 and 31 October, with Programme Two on 28 and 30 October. Following this weeks run at Sadlers Wells the Mark Morris Dance Group will be touring the two shows to five further venues across England, Scotland and Wales.

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