Leave it to Mark Morris to debut his new piece, entitled “Water,” right alongside the East River, at the very tip of Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The score was by Handel, whose “Water Music” was composed for King George I in 1717 and meant to be played on a barge during a royal joyride along the Thames. Uncharacteristically for Mark Morris, the music for this debut was recorded and not live. But the extra percussion added by the helicopters, coast guard boats, ferries, and jet skis was most definitely in-the-moment, and heavy on improv. Despite these distractions, “Water” was an engrossing piece—in fact, I think the water traffic in the background only added to Morris’s playful irreverence.
The cast of 14 dancers entered together in two rows like a royal processional. Their steps were often jaunty and polite, there were prancy runs and lots goofy assemblés. I was reminded of Jerome Robbins’s last work, “Brandenburg,” when the dancers gathered in wedge formation for little plié steps with their hands on their hips or else presenting their feet. But “Water” was hybrid-baroque, there were also jazz lunges, karate-chopping hands, and a motif of a melting arabesque that looked watery indeed. Best of all, the piece was danced in all-black shirts and pants, so that the cast was starkly silhouetted against the skyline in the blazing sun. This was helpful, it outlined their figures against the skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, and the maritime chaos behind them in the harbor. And visibility was an issue elsewhere in the performance.
The Harbor View Lawn, where this free show was set, can be a wonderful outdoor venue. Movies are shown here throughout the summer on a large projector, and I have fond memories of the Met Opera performing a free concert against the twilight sky some years ago. However, no stage was erected for the Mark Morris Dance Group shows. The company tried to make their pieces fit into the concrete triangle at the edge of the pier, with limited success. When I arrived at the lawn, ten minutes before the start time, it was hard to tell that a performance was going to take place. There was a cluster of people down low in the flat corner, but higher up on the hill—normally the good seats—it was patchily attended. I worried that maybe I was in the wrong place, but those around me assured me I was not. This was the second showing of the day, and it seemed that the crowd had learned from the earlier offering.
In a few moments, dancers in costumes (with sneakers, not the troupe’s usual bare feet) emerged on the cement path at the edge of the water and unassumingly started “Words,” the program opener. Everyone who cared enough stood up and craned to see. Those sitting at the front had the best vantage, though no sightline was great. I had brought my kids and their friends, excited for them to have a chance to see live dancing for the first time in over a year. But unless they were perched on shoulders, they had no chance of seeing anything. And even then, it was hard to see their whole bodies. A raised platform of any kind would have done wonders. After a few minutes, most people beyond the closest patch kind of shrugged and went back to picnicking loudly. A guy nearby laid down on his back, put on his headphones, and stared into the sky for the rest of the show. It was too bad “Words” was so hard to see, because it is a good work. And the baseball imagery—especially the swinging of invisible bats—was especially fitting at the triangular peak of the big field.
The middle piece on the bill, “Quad,” was not really a dance at all, but a Samuel Beckett television play. Morris created it for an Irish Beckett Festival in 2019, and this was its first performance in the US, and by his own company. Four dancers in Druidic, hooded cloaks basically played Frogger in a square. The music was supplied by the remaining company members, who played various percussion instruments while seated around the back perimeter. (As to be expected of the MMDG, the dancer-accompanists were musically adept in their orchestral role.) I was reminded of Robbins here too. The near misses of the pedestrian walking patterns evoked “Rubric,” the first movement of his “Glass Pieces.” But “Quad” felt long, and by that point the kids had given up on the show altogether, instead they were examining ants with my opera glasses. However, I rather appreciated that “Quad” cleared out much of the standing crowd beyond the front rows so that “Water” was a little easier to see.
And I’d like to see “Water” again. I’d even like to see it again by the water. The Mark Morris Dance Group is celebrating its 20th anniversary at its headquarters in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn this year, as well as the 40th anniversary of the troupe itself. This terrific company deserves a proper stage!