Theatricality elevates the dance for Mark Morris

By Andrew Cogan

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On Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Mark Morris Dance Group treated audiences at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center to an impressive display of Modern Dance.

Morris’ reputation for delivering innovative yet technically challenging dance pieces went unchallenged last night, as Morris’ group presented three dances, “Looky” (2007), “All Fours” (2003), and “V” (2001), each of which had its own distinctive style and choreography.

Opening with “Looky,” the piece emphasized narrative and storytelling through the incorporation of theatrical elements alongside more choreographed dance movements. The 18 dancers involved each wore different costumes, accentuating the +-attributes of their characters. Utilizing folding chair props, simulated dialogue and comedy, the dance revealed itself in movie-like fashion, it’s myriad scenes and images requiring as much acting as they did dancing in order to bring the performance to life.

Following “Looky” was “All Fours.” Featuring 12 dancers, this piece departed from the more theatrical elements of “Looky,” using atmosphere and the juxtaposition of colors to set different moods and convey meaning to the audience.

The piece hinged upon two disparate groups of dancers. The first, dressed in black costumes and dancing against a red backdrop, functioned like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, building the mood and offering broad contextualization for the more intricate story elements at play. The heart of the story was contained within the second group – two male and female couples. Dressed in white costumes and dancing against a warm yellow background, their movements suggested conflict and internal struggle. 

The final dance was the longest of the three. Moderately paced and set to melodic strings and piano, the dancers of “V” displayed cool blue and green costumes accented by warm stage lighting to create a lighter, happier mood that was further enhanced by the flowing and lively choreography.

Each of the three dance performances retained fundamental characteristics of Morris’ style. They were each highly visual, strong in narrative and deeply rooted in the musical pieces that accompanied them.

Part of what makes Morris’ style so compelling is the foundational role of music in his work. His dances are as much an expression of the music as they are expressions in their own right, with dancers emoting deep breadth of feeling through the movements they project.

Last night, the music was exceptional for its complexity and virtuosity. The precision of the overall performance was a testament to the skill of both the dancers and musicians. Consisting of a string quartet with piano accompaniment, the musicians huddled in the orchestra pit, dim light casting dramatic shadows over their faces and instruments as they swayed back and forth with the music. The mood created by their energy and emotion greatly enhanced the overall effectiveness of the dance pieces.

The coupling of such vivid imagery with engaging narrative and high levels of musicality makes Morris’ dances a sight to behold. Arresting even to general audiences who may not be versed in the art of contemporary modern dance, Morris’ shows are highly recommended for anyone with the slightest curiosity for discovering all the artistry and innovation such a world has to offer.  

Andrew Cogan can be reached at [email protected]