Entertainment

Review: More Mark Morris Video Dances, More Postcards to Fans

The Mark Morris Dance Group began its 40th anniversary season with five new video works.


By Brian Seibert

The Mark Morris Dance Group’s 40th season began on Thursday with the debut of five video dances. Forty years is a milestone, and new work by Mr. Morris always raises hopes of something special, but the most telling moments came during a Q. and A.

When live and in-person performance is again possible, a viewer asked, would Mr. Morris consider transferring these new video works to the stage?

“No,” he answered with comical terseness.

“It’s not what they’re for,” he continued after a moment, explaining that these dances would be, for one, “unsatisfyingly short” onstage. Each is “meant to be like a commercial,” he said, “which it would be if we made money.”

I would say they’re more like placeholders, or digital postcards to fans. As with the video dances that the company presented in May, this online program — available on YouTube, with donations requested — has as much banter and filler as dance-film content. In between selections, the group’s musical director, Colin Fowler, supplies musical trivia while Mr. Morris peppers straight talk about process with an endless supply of puns.

This time, the video dances come in two categories: novel experiments and adaptations of existing repertory. Neither approach gets very far.

An excerpt from Mr. Morris’s choreography for the Azerbaijani opera “Layla and Majnun,” one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking dance works of the past decade, is at best a teaser. A section of his complex and strange “Empire Garden” (2009) promises to use video to illuminate the strict correspondences between the choreography and the difficult Charles Ives score (in a new recording with Yo-Yo Ma on cello and on camera). But the visual result — a quilt of bodies in boxes — doesn’t have the clarifying coherence of the stage version.

In “Offertorium,” a rarely performed solo to sacred Schubert music that Mr. Morris made for himself in 1988, we get the recently retired company veteran Lauren Grant, a marvel of unaffected clarity. But she’s filmed in low resolution in multiple locations, and the editing, by Mr. Fowler, is haphazard.

“Why is Mr. Fowler the video editor?” one viewer asked. “Because it would be a flip book if I was doing it,” Mr. Morris answered. A homespun quality has always been part of the Morris charm, and I’m sure money is tight these days. But if the company is going to continue making videos, investing in a professional editor and some better equipment might be worthwhile. An effective commercial requires some polish.

For the two wholly new pieces, Mr. Morris traded his usual music-first method for a mode common with other choreographers: giving his dancers movement prompts, then collaging what they come up with and adding music later.

In “Allegro Molto,” the insane density and speed of a Conlon Nancarrow player-piano recording is matched with an assault of images: dancers collapsing, falling in spirals. The two-minute burst is something of a trip, but Mr. Morris’s own droll comment is just: “Most dances are too long; this can’t be accused of that.”

“Promenade Sentimentale” is set to Debussy’s overplayed “Clair de Lune.” (Mr. Fowler chose the music. The never dissembling Mr. Morris tell us that his first response was “No way.”) We see the sky, the seashore, a lake, a pool and, in a tiny ripple of wit, the Gowanus Canal. In individual frames, the dancers curl, rise, spin and fall backward into water.

The combination of the familiar music and the repetition of simple actions is pleasing. It’s a small pleasure, but as Mr. Morris says, these video dances are not what his company normally does, and events later in the anniversary season, including livestream performances next year, might get closer to the old Morris magic. For now, the main appeal of these video dances is sentimental.

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