Morris Dance Group
Mark Morris’s adeptness with classical music has been proved and written about over and over, but Friday it was his adeptness with jazz that made the evening. In the Washington premiere of “Violet Cavern” to a commissioned score from jazz trio The Bad Plus, Morris added a new triumph to his repertory.
“Violet Cavern” begins, appropriately, with the stage bathed in a soft purple and a set of semi-transparent rectangles designed by Stephen Hendee hanging above. When lit, the sculpture looks like pieces from of a Japanese lantern. The side curtains have been pulled away, which, combined with the jazz style, gives “Violet Cavern” an informal feel. Dancers begin to move one by one upstage, while several men lay on the floor downstage. The men then slide themselves upstage, all under dim lights, which slowly increase in intensity, but with ample shadowing. The overall effect of the opening sequence is one of an organism coming to life. Very early the choreography plunges into the music, the piano, drums and bass thrusting the dancers through a series of attitude turns and twirls. The first section ends with the stage full of dancers, 14 in all, spinning in place, arms outstretched to the sides. In the preceding jump phrase, one dancer had hit (accidentally?) one of the hanging pieces, so as the group suddenly stops, one lone square still sways in the silence. The pace seems very intense, very quickly, which made me wonder how Morris would build to a climax, having seemingly left himself with little room to go up.
“Violet Cavern's” middle sections are lovely, not quite as meaty as the opener. One, featuring Michelle Yard who stood out throughout “Violet Cavern” plays on simplicity. Yard moves up and down center stage with loose, easy dancing, most of the rest of the cast moving in lines on either side. Though the full cast’s dancing has more steps to it, Yard commands the stage with style. When her choreography takes her away from the other dancers, her absence creates a notable space.
Both the choreography and music keep vibrating (especially for those of us sitting close to the band who seem to be absolutely pulsating), but with an easy tempo. Certainly the music would be marked as “andante.” Morris realizes this mood, with an interesting wheelbarrow formation that repeats often. Two dancers slide across the stage on their backs, holding hands with a dancer standing upright, slightly tilted back. In another repeated motif, dancers sweep into a deep plié in first position, arms stretched above, slowly collapsing at the elbows. Sometimes, especially in the initial sections, dancers do the plié alone, but as the work continues they are more often supported by a partner, so their arms drip like lava through their partners’ arms.
The lights move away from purple, sometimes red, sometimes yellow, but when the stage suddenly bursts with many colors at once, the shift upwards that I had wondered about happens. Morris finds a way to bring “Violet Cavern” to a climax and does so wonderfully. As The Bad Plus outdoes their earlier playing, banging away at their instruments and sweating profusely, the dancers soar. One phrase takes dancers off, one by one exiting with leaps that grow each time, finally a man supporting a woman through in a large split. They return in a giant swirl, turning like mad as some trios repeat the wheelbarrow formation. Those pedantic crossings make the rest of the dancing look all the fuller. Between the dancing and the music, the energy in the theater was absolutely palpable, hanging in the air as the dance finishes, dancers still spinning as the curtains closed.
The program also included Morris’s 1993 “Mosaic and United,” a much colder work for six dancers: three women and three men. In the piece, the dancers alternate between wearing silk button-up shirts and tank tops (designed by Isaac Mizrahi), which made for the most interesting changes in movement. In one section, the men wear the shirts and perform the same jig-like skipping step as the tank-topped women. Where the women’s movement looks cute and playful, the men, thanks to the billowing shirts, look streamlined and soft.
In “Mosaic and United,” Morris does not ask his dancers to perform with the intensity of “Violet Cavern,” but the dancers do the simplest transitions so well. Several bits of choreography call for their raised arms to open, their chests rising into a high arch. Each gives that moment a sense of breath and elasticity, as though opening to the sun of a new day.
In this piece, the Mark Morris Dance Ensemble provided accompaniment, Henry Cowell’s “String Quartet No. 3, Mosaic” and “String Quartet No. 4, United.” Thank goodness Morris values the use of live music in his concerts; the George Mason appearance marked his company’s 600th appearance with live music. The commitment is an extremely expensive one, but it pays dividends several times over in raising the level of the dancegoing experience.