For a few moments last week it was possible to imagine one was living in New York and not Seattle, at least as far as the dance community was concerned. On Thursday night, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) opened a three-night run at On the Boards while at Meany Hall the Paul Taylor Dance Company took over the stage for the same period of time.
Seeing these companies back to back provided not only a rare feast for the eyes but a chance to contrast and compare two choreographers, both of whom have entered the pantheon of contemporary dancemaking geniuses. Born a generation apart – Taylor is 82 and Morris 56 – they share a remarkable number of qualities despite the fact that there is no mistaking a Taylor work for one created by Morris or vice versa.
Both were considered enfants terribles in their youth. On the first full evening of his own work in 1957, Taylor presented a “dance” consisting of himself and a female partner standing still for three minutes. Early on in his career, Morris posed nude for Vanity Fair, causing not just uproar but a questioning of his artistic seriousness.
But there are far more significant similarities between Taylor and Morris. Both have amassed a body of diverse work that continues to delight and impress. Both are intensely musical, have an impish sense of humor and use naturalistic gestures informed by powerful technique (Taylor more so than Morris). And both continue to turn out new dances at an astonishing rate, as their Seattle appearances attest.
Neither is a stranger to Seattle and both their companies typically sell out here, regardless of the size of the house they perform in. Of course Morris holds a special place in Seattle’s heart. Born and bred here, he premiered 13 of his earliest works at OtB’s former home, is creating a world premiere for PNB and continues to maintain close personal ties here. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that he chose Seattle and OtB for last week’s world premiere of the newest ballet for his own company nor even that Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom Morris founded White Oak Dance Project, would appear in it.
“A Wooden Tree” is an engaging ballet but anyone expecting Baryshnikov to bring his legendary star power to the work would have been sorely disappointed. Set to witty, offbeat songs of the Scottish Ivor Cutler, this is an ensemble piece, a quirky embodiment of whatever wacky ideas Cutler is playing with. Clothed in mismatched everyday dress, Baryshnikov and the rest of the dancers cavort around the stage as Cutler sings (on tape) about a rubber toy, not having common sense, a family’s excitement over a growing tree and a man (Baryshnikov) who sits at the top of the world tapping out messages in Morse code. The folk-inspired movement perfectly captures the loopiness of the songs and “The Wooden Tree” proves that Morris can do just about anything he sets his mind to.
The biggest hit of the evening was “Grand Duo,” one of Morris’s signature works. Set to the pulsing music of Lou Harrison, it has been called Morris’ Rite of Spring and has a primal thrust that keeps one riveted throughout the four sections. The final movement is one of the most compelling in the entire contemporary dance canon as the full company flashes arms and legs in diagonal lines, up and down, acting out some ancient ritual whose power is almost overwhelming. Joanna Frankel attacked her violin and Colin Fowler his piano with gusto and were justifiably rewarded with as much applause as Morris and his dancers. It was a treat to hear Frankel, Fowler and the rest of the MMDG Music Ensemble.
As talented as Morris is, he can also be infuriating. With some regularity he turns out dances that are little more than pretty, and sometimes not even that. There’s no arguing that “The Muir,” a lighthearted exploration of love and death set to Beethoven’s arrangements of nine Scottish and Irish folk songs, is easy on the eyes. The troupe, led by a luminous Laurel Lynch, bounded through Morris’ fluid spins and turns, but five minutes after it was over, it was hard to feel much impact. Even less satisfying was the all-female “Petrichor,” set to a string quartet by Villa Lobos. The music is virtually undanceable and the bizarre costumes – thigh length tops over shiny short bodysuits – were distracting. Even worse, the talents of Morris’ female dancers were wasted in a piece that might just have easily been called “Wood Nymphs Frolicking in the Forest.”
Although not every ballet by Paul Taylor is a masterpiece, by what may have been the luck of the draw, the three works his company presented here were all first-rate. Both “Kith and Kin” and “Brandenburgs” are Taylor at his athletic, bouncy best, full of jumps and leaps that make you feel the stage is more a trampoline than a hard surface. “Kith and Kin,” set to Mozart, is a series of jaunty dances that convey an American-Gothic kind of family grouping. There’s no clear narrative but Taylor seems to be exploring the range of family relationships, beginning with a couple’s attempt to corral their unruly brood. Taylor’s powerful dancers, among the best in the world, play leap frog and scurry about as they vie for each other’s and their parent’s attention; the result is a nonstop frolic that delights from start to finish.
In “Brandenburgs,” Taylor shows off his capacity to take the simplest movements – running, tilting, opening arms, pointing – and turn them into art. Set to sections of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos No. 3 and 6, the ballet has some Martha Graham-inspired moments (Taylor danced with Graham and has been quoted as saying he borrows from other choreographers, “but only the best ones”) but is uniquely Taylor in its athleticism and fluidity. Michael Trusnovec is one of the most charismatic dancers Taylor has ever hired and his bare-chested sinewy body allowed him to bring a quality of elegance to even the smallest gesture.
Sandwiched between these two buoyant ballets was “The Uncommitted,” first performed at the American Dance Festival last year. This is the dark, sculptural Taylor and in Arvo Pärt’s spare music, Taylor has found the humanity at his, and our, core. A series of solos, duets, trios and full ensemble dancing, “The Uncommitted” has a ritualistic quality to it that gives the ballet coherence even as the particular movements and individual dancers change throughout its course. In one especially affecting section, a ribbon of dancers streams across the stage and into the wings, leaving a single dancer alone in the middle. Almost instantly, the ribbon reappears, this time leaving a different dancer isolated. Jennifer Tipton’s moody lighting and Santo Loquasto’s floating fabric panels hanging along the back wall add to the somber effect of the ballet and to the sense that even when we are surrounded by others, ultimately we are all on our own.
Pärt’s music has been overused by choreographers in recent years but here it sounded fresh and new, thanks in part to the subtle playing of the Seattle Modern Orchestra. Meany Hall’s Executive Director Michelle Witt intends to build on the idea of pairing a local musical group with a touring company, an innovation that is bound to make future performances at Meany Hall even more satisfying.
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