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Cheeky toes
Mark Morris at the Shubert

Related Links

Mark Morris Dance Group's official Web site

The Mark Morris Dance Group has been giving annual performances in Boston under the auspices of the Celebrity Series since 1999. Morrisís company has attained a status and stability enjoyed by only a handful of modern-dance ensembles in todayís unfriendly arts environment. This yearís engagement at the Shubert Theatre included two local premieres and three works from the repertory, with multiple casts for two of them.

Dance repertory has its drawbacks, chiefly the danger of an automatic response. Morris splashes a postmodern irreverence into his old and new dances, and that keeps them from complacency. Heís too mainstream now to be thought of as a true subversive, but heís constantly playing against your expectations. You may not notice heís doing this because his dance rides so securely on its musical accompaniments, but then all of a sudden you realize youíre not looking at a carbon copy of your memories.

In his choreography, Morris is a formalist, the best kind. That is, his dances donít seem to stand for anything but the pleasure of fitting movement together with music, but in their synergy they add up to more. Silhouettes (1999) is a short essay on canonic form ó one mover imitates the other in various time and space combinations. Itís a little like a game of catch-up, in which either contender can win. Opening night Joe Bowie seemed to be the leader and David Leventhal the follower, though they may have exchanged roles a few times. Each was wearing one half of a pair of pajamas.

Little surprises kept undermining the danceís predictability. The music, a suite of piano pieces by Richard Cumming played by Steven Beck, didnít have any canons in it that I detected, but it ranged over several forms you might have found in an early-20th-century music hall, including ragtime and a cakewalk. The more the dancers shared each otherís movements, the more you noticed how different they were from each other. At the very end, as Leventhal lay down on the floor next to Bowie, I thought they had more than a working partnership. Possibly they were lovers. Or two sides of the same person.

Gender reform, a major theme of Morrisís, has gone way beyond putting same-sex couples together. In Rock of Ages, which premiered last fall in California, three men and a woman start out as a genderless quartet, to Franz Schubertís "Notturno" for piano and strings D.897. (Beck was joined by violinist Yosuke Kawasaki and cellist Wolfram Koessel.) The dancers work in pairs but trade partners to avoid the suggestion of romantic bonding. Still, thereís a lot of tenderness as they touch each other, pose like artistsí models to be gazed at, gesture while standing so close together that their arms brush each otherís faces.

At one moment, Michelle Yard carries Bradon McDonald across the stage, reminding you that you havenít totally shucked off that old mindset about how the men are supposed to carry the woman. Morris attacked this preconception even further by having one of the alternate casts comprise three women and one man.

Having escaped the confines of gender stereotyping, Morris finds other choreographic avenues. In Somebodyís Coming to See Me Tonight (1995), he puts an edge on the sentimental songs of Stephen Foster by avoiding anything that could be construed romantically. The dance opens with a long relay of duets. A man and woman dance together for a few minutes. As their path takes them near the wings, he slips away and is replaced by another man. As soon as they establish a connection, she disappears and another woman joins him, and the process continues until all nine dancers have taken their turn. After that, they dance in groups and rollick through a polka.

The heterosexual situation prompts Morris to his wittiest, campiest extremes. The Shubert program opened with the party piece From Old Seville, which he made for the Martha @ gala performance in 2001 at New Yorkís Town Hall. Morris and Lauren Grant are playing castanets and doing a sexy Spanish dance, fortified after every chorus with drinks poured by bartender John Heginbotham. Theyíre a totally improbable couple ó sheís quick and tiny and a spitfire; heís round and graceful and bit haughty ó and as he gets more interested in Heginbotham, she gets impatient, if not jealous. You wish it could go on forever, but after seven minutes, he strolls off and she follows uncertainly.

The evening ended with the 45-minute dance Morris commissioned from composer Lou Harrison in 1997, Rhymes with Silver.

Issue Date: March 18 - 25, 2005
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