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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Democracy in Dance

-  By Tom Phillips

In his mischievous mode, Mark Morris is a serious comedian.  He doesn't take his dancers seriously, but he has them act as if they’re taking themselves seriously – and in the distance between these points of view is the genius of his gentle wit. 

Morris’s new work, “Words,” is set to Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” for violin and piano, and it reminds me of another comic masterpiece with music by Mendelssohn – Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  “What fools these mortals be!” says Puck, but we love their foolishness as we do our own. 
Laurel Lynch and Billy Smith -- Mark Morris Dance Group 

“Words” also resembles Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” but where that evoked Woodstock in the 1960s, this is more like Brooklyn in the 20-teens.   His 18 dancers – nine women, nine men – are dressed in different colors, but identical costumes – long shorts, and V-neck blouses.  They wouldn’t look out of place on the subway, or Prospect Park.   And their interactions are as multifarious as you’d see in a busy urban environment – beckonings and dismissals, emotional exchanges, introspections, mob movements, and pure physical fun – skipping, spinning, falling, getting on and getting off.   Those last two – exits and entrances -- are covered by a bit of Morrisanian stage nonsense.   Two dancers, different ones each time, cross the stage holding a plain curtain, smaller than a bedsheet.  Behind it, dancers walk on and off, forming new couples and groups as the action constantly shifts.   This mock-solemn business has the feel of elemental theater.  We can see what’s going on behind the curtain, but we choose to pretend that these people are just disappearing, being replaced by other characters.  And with our cheerful suspension of disbelief, we join in creating the magic.  

"Words" was the opening-night world premiere at the Fall for Dance festival, now underway at City Center.  Many more viewings would be required to analyze the action, and pick out the finest performances.  But the piece never lagged, it was one delight after another.   Morris did save the best for last – turning the lights down for an ensemble section that my notes describe as “swivelly.”   They go on to say the whole company is “rushing .. searching .. not finding… but not lost.” 

Morris’s approach to dance is thoroughly democratic.   Men and women are treated the same – no stars or even soloists.  Dancing is a communal activity.   Music is integrated as it should be, part of the dance, always live.   Morris knows there is strength in numbers; dancers dancing together, people working together.  His trick of making dancers as real as people in the street redeems modern dance from artsiness – saves it from the twin traps of abstraction and sentimentality.   This is why modern dance was invented:  to take dancers down from their pedestals and show them as people.   “Words” is the thing itself – it takes down its dancers and at the same time honors them, justifies them.  And we see ourselves in them. 

Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips       
Photo by Ani Collier