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Flash Review 1, 10-13: Weightless, Bloodless, and Airtight
Mark Morris's 2-Dimensional Dancers

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO -- Mark Morris has created a singular choreographic planet that floats somewhere between Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, 20s/30s vaudeville numbers, campiness, and ancient tableaux vivant. Is Morris, whose company opened last night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the super-brained child of a drag queen and one of the Isadorables, brought up by a vaudeville uncle?

What struck me most in the first few moments of watching the Mark Morris Dance Group in "My Party" (1984) was the very specific quality of the dancing itself. The dancers seemed to have no blood, no breath, plastic bones, and plastic skin. Although the eight performers moved, smiled, danced, took on forms, and changed shapes, they were like icons of people, cartoons of people dancing in a blank field of space. It's difficult to describe. This all sounds terribly negative, but this is just what I observed. The movement loses inertia easily, is based in a very quotidian energy of everybody doing tasks everyday. I found this weightless, airtight quality was not specific to "My Party" (despite it's Orwellian vintage), but was a stylistic constant throughout the evening.

This medieval/Egyptian two-dimensional energy gave a subtle, vaguely tragic overlay to the circle dance in "My Party." Like children who had grown unaware into adults, there was a simple body attitude that agreeably took on the clever intricacies of the choreography without personality. In fact as I think about it now, the issue of the actual, real personalities of the dancers is definitely in question. What an odd way the MM dancers have of "acting" to the dance; it seems very simplistic, yet Morris's choreography is chock full of sophisticated satire.

The movement walks, it skips, it floats it's arms in fey ways, it curves its spine to the side, it stamps its foot, it goes on releve, it twirls and lays on the floor, it plays footsy rhythm games, it leaps, it always leaves its clear and sure mark in the space -- DID YOU SEE THAT? And then: the eyes open wide in mock surprise and the fists shake in mock tantrum and the head turns away in mock horror and the partners grab each other in mock lust and mock anger.

The choreography, driven by the music, is exceedingly formal in structure. Which is mostly very pleasing. Everything makes sense. This world has order. We are secure. We may not understand why adult women in pastel leotards and crinolines and men in pastel shirts with colorful short ties and black pants are prancing about lightly and mock ecstatically to happy, pleasant music (Jean Francaix -- hey, LIVE music: YES!), but certainly the choreographer has taken everything into account. It's all fun, light, musical -- but the mood of joy is tempered by this covert cynicism masquerading as wit. Is it really so pure, childlike, innocent, when it lacks even a hint of chaos? No. Circle dances and kick-lines and classical strings and folk dances and images of couples on the floor with their feet to us, belly to belly, one writhing on top of the other.

Ethan Iverson played the Chopin for "Sang Froid" (1999), and he rocked my world! Damn! I swooned to his delicate, resonant interpretation of the so-familiar pieces. The nine dancers were dressed in black. The first of the three black-costumed pieces of the evening. Will the years 1999 and 2000 be known at Morris's 'black period'? Ha ha ha. My favorite moment of this piece was when one dancer was lying 'dead' on the floor and the group began a light and rhythmic repetitious stomping, advancing in a pack like vultures to the kill; it was a moment delightfully morbid and silly at the same time. Edward Gorey-esque. The playfulness of Morris's work is so stealthily crafted and designed. I keep thinking of a child genius. Full of form and low on content and experience.

The thing is to see Morris dance himself, as he did in "The Argument" (1999). Rather portly of tummy, he nevertheless possesses a catlike softness and weighted flow unique in his Group. His limbs seem well-integrated through his center, giving even the most frivolous gesture a very sincere and rare breed of grandiosity and generosity. Danced to music by Schumann, "The Argument" is full of mock Eastern European flair, mock tango energy, and mock dysfunctional couples. There was some lovely, sensitive dancing by the six-person cast.

Isn't there ladies underwear called Silhouettes? Is that why the women in this duet were wearing underwear? Is that a joke? "Silhouettes" (1999) featured one tall long dancer with long blond hair in black panties and loose button-down shirt, and a short, more compact dancer with curly short blond hair in a black bra and loose-fitting pants. Once again, there was a deceptively simple musicality that masked all sorts of non-verbal clevernesses, little jokes about the music (Richard Cumming's "Silhouettes -- Five Pieces for Piano," Iverson again). The calm and easy energy between these two performers (Lauren Grant and Julie Worden) was cooling and refreshing after all the mock drama of "Sang Froid" and "The Argument."

The final piece on the program, "Dancing Honeymoon," is most bewildering. It's like a show dance without a show. It's big but it's small. It's all in yellow outfits. Seven dancers. I pegged the vintage feel of the music but in my ignorance not the era. 20s? 40s? The songs sung by Eileen Clark were "Transcribed and arranged by Ethan Iverson from historical recordings of Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan." These songs were delicious little trifles, silly as can be, yet of a complex nature like a fancy petit-four, and so was the choreography. In this dance for some reason the cast looked uncomfortably mature to be parading and spoofing and goofing it up like kids at summer stock. The choreography became for me almost neurotically whimsical, and I felt the transparent emptiness of the dancers' expressions was wearing through to adult reality as the evening came to a close.

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