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The Music Man

Has any choreographer extracted as much value from the chug step as Mark Morris? Jerome Robbins came close in “Glass Pieces,” and George Balanchine gave chugs some big moments in “Apollo,” but Morris consistently uses the simple move to demonstrate a profound musicality. Chugs are inherently galumphing, but Morris wields them like a baroque architect. It’s as if he paints cathedrals with thick toddler crayons. Though it must be said, he pulls off the same trick with basic walking, running, skipping, etc. During week two of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s run at the Joyce (their first stint ever at the theater: how is that possible?), his ability to erect the sacred from the mundane was on wondrous display.

Performance

Mark Morris Dance Group, Program B

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, August 10, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Castor and Pollux.” Photograph by Danica Paulos

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Program B opened with the stage premiere of “Tempus Perfectum,” which was created and livestreamed during the pandemic. So many Covid specials were despairing and ominous, but not this one. The title is predictably impish. It is Latin for a medieval musical term meaning triple meter time, which was apt given that the work was set to Brahms’s Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39. Many of these piano pieces, beautifully played live by Colin Fowler, are famous lullabies, to which Morris set lots of lilting steps and rocking motions. The dancers’ night gowns and baggy separates, designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman, added to the soothing vibe. The Latin could also translate as “perfect meter” (perfect because threes are associated with the holy trinity) or “completed time,” “past-perfect time.” Leave it to Morris to use a reference to perfect timing and the past in the abysmal middle of a modern-day plague, though the dancers certainly kept perfect time throughout. I especially liked a dance for Courtney Lopes and Karlie Budge which matched subtle hand-flicks to dainty notes. 

“Tempus Perfectum” was not all feel-good tunes and comfy clothes, however. Lopes performed awkward, splayed attitude ronds de jambe sautés coming straight at the audience. Dallas McMurray introduced a tense turn motif—its momentum cut by the abrupt flinging out of his working leg to à la seconde, his torso overwinding from the force of it. McMurray and Noah Vinson danced linked at the waist like conjoined twins (a theme that was echoed later, aptly, in “Castor and Pollux”). They frequently spread their fingers behind their heads, as if making crowns—or like the Siren’s power pose in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son.” But the gesture read as less royal and domineering here; instead, it looked foolish, as if they were giving themselves coxcombs. These were among the oddball notes Morris sprinkled about. All was lovely and calm—you could even mistake Budge for Isadora Duncan at times, so wild and free was she in her flowing dress—except for the moments when the dancers appeared to be slightly uncoordinated, stuck in ternary purgatory and perhaps losing their sanity in their jammies.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “All Fours.” Photograph by Danica Paulos

At first glance, “All Fours,” from 2003, was a study in contrasts. Martin Pakledinaz’s lighting and Nicole Pearce’s costumes set the heaven/hell tone, with a group of eight dancers clad in black dancing furiously in front of red or black backdrops and a quartet in white dancing before softer beige drops to slower passages of Bartók’s unnerving String Quartet No. 4 (excitingly performed live by the Aeolus Quartet). The light-costumed foursome was bisected further into casual and formal dress camps. Unsurprisingly, Morris’s pitting of musical point against counterpoint made for the most engaging showdown. A prime example was when the darkly dressed faction switched their arms up and down in syncopation against Matthew McLaughlin’s unceasing pulses. 

Yet, despite all the stark opposition, the piece was more elucidative of gray areas overall. Whenever the quartet appeared, it was like a dream ballet sequence in a musical, though the effect was never exactly paradisiacal. At one point, Billy Smith and Christina Sahaida held hands and walked slowly together, as in many utopian dances; but they looked away from each other and appeared to be surveying an alien landscape rather than the Elysian fields. Likewise, Morris’s gestural imagery was intriguingly slippery. Hands lifted in back-bending prayer and fists raised to God were theme steps for both the black and white groups. The dancers also repeated a hand-to-ear pose that seemed to convey listening (hark!), a painful remembrance, or maybe a pounding headache. Even in an ostensibly dogmatic mode, Morris skewed the messaging. Lopes, McMurray, Sahaida, and especially the fluid Smith were excellent as the (fallen?) angelic quartet. 

Mark Morris Dance Group in “A minor Dance.” Photograph by Danica Paulos

The lowercase pun in the title of the world premiere, “A minor Dance” (named after its score, Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor), signified that, twenty years later, Morris had lost neither his playfulness nor his musical bent. The neatest passage featured the entire cast working together to make what looked like a riverboat paddle, slowly churning as the dancers cycled through it as human spokes. It took me a minute to realize what was so disorienting about it: the wheel travelled to the left as the dancers fed into it from that side, but, given the way the trompe l’oeil wheel was rolling, it should have been moving to the right. It was also amusing when the dancers entered in canon along the diagonal, gracefully flapping like swans before pitching back at the waist for stiff plank walks. Perhaps most arch, after the dancers teamed up to make the human waterwheel, they performed a group number in which each dancer stayed in their own solo track across the floor, ignoring the doings of their castmates. They sometimes mimed empty ballroom holds, suggesting a chilling loneliness. Interconnected harmony with a chaser of bleak isolation.  

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Castor and Pollux.” Photograph by Danica Paulos

Brandon Rudolph stood out for his lightness and verve in “A minor Dance” and the rest of his triple bill, but the performance of the night went to Karlie Budge in the opening solo of “Castor and Pollux.” She was a warrior, strong and intense, repeatedly hinging down to the floor and back up without using her hands. This dance was essentially a premiere as well: it hadn’t been performed since 1981. It was choreographed in 1980—the same year the company was founded—but it evoked a much earlier time. “Castor” was full of vivid chug sequences, numerous circle dances, and flat-footed caveman floor slapping. Harry Partch’s Eastern-inflected score, which utilized handmade percussion instruments akin to chimes and woodblocks, accentuated the primitive themes. 

The dancers made several poses in profile with angular arms, as on ancient friezes, and moved laterally back and forth in them. They resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics playing Pac-Man. McMurray and Smith were stellar in a dance-off that felt like a fight for pack dominance. Amy Page’s costumes (black harem shorts, with half the cast in gray t-shirts and the other half topless) evoked a shirts-vs.-skins pickup game. The crowd, which included performance artist Marina Abramović and downtown deconstructionist Pam Tanowitz, stood and cheered while Morris hammed up his bows, presenting his dancers like Vanna White. I wondered: why did “Castor and Pollux” take a 43-year nap? You couldn’t not applaud this exhilarating tribal frolic, or Morris’s brilliant, career-long fusion of the primal and the scholarly.  

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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