Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Mark Morris Dance Group Finally Alights at the Joyce

Tempus Perfectum. Photo: Danica Paulos

Mark Morris Dance Group performed at the Joyce for the first time, finally! Some fable would be an appropriate metaphor, whether it’s Goldilocks finding the right bed, or Cinderella getting that right-sized glass slipper on her foot. In any case, MMDG’s small-to-medium scaled rep looked right at home at the Joyce in front of enthusiastic audiences. I saw the second program, but the first bill featured Grand Duo, which seems as if it might feel large on the Joyce stage, but apparently fit just fine.

The company performed two live premieres: Tempus Perfectum, done online in 2021, and A minor Dance. Just four dancers performed Tempus, set to Brahms’ Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39—Noah Vinson, Dallas McMurray, Courtney Lopes, and Karlie Budge—and they were perfectly matched. A repeating gesture, spreading arms welcoming the viewer, felt geared to a camera, probably a consideration during Covid restrictions, when many dances were  made that way under duress (indeed, a largely dark chapter in dance making). In person, as on camera, it emanated warmth and inclusion. 

McMurray has a remarkable sense of center and balance, on full view in a hypnotic sequence where he repeatedly spins and brakes, but his body keeps twisting. He and Vinson have a preternatural sense of calm, balanced by Lopes’ and Budge’s more fervent approaches. The impulse for Budge’s movement seems to emanate from within, conveying a deeper source. All are riveting, and Morris’ dance here is impassioned and emotive.

Domingo Estrada and Courtney Lopes in A minor Dance. Photo: Danica Paulos

A minor Dance is wittily titled in a nod to Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827, which music director Colin Fowler plays live. The dance begins and ends in earnest with a crisp hand clap, first by Mica Bernas, last by Fowler. Several notable motifs emerge: a dancer rises from the floor, basically pulling herself up by her face; jogging; arms flicking to the side; graceful leaps landing in a double hop; skating strides. Most memorably, two dancers hold hands and lean apart, another dancer joins as the first lowers to the floor, forming an undending chain—a dancer wheel! 

A later section has the feel of a défilé, or lively series of stage crossings, including some of the phrases noted above, plus spins and backward slides with arms pulling at diagonals. Morris keeps inventing in small and large ways, and his straightforward way of arranging the body and moving it through space continues to amaze. It’s difficult in its simplicity and lack of affect, rendered expertly by his varied dancers.
Billy Smith, Courtney Lopes, Dallas McMurray, Christina Sahaida
in All Fours. Photo: Danica Paulos

As reminders of the length and breadth of his career, also on the program were All Fours (2003) and Castor and Pollux (1980). The latter felt like a marathon for the dancers, whose bold, angular, and quick movements matched the lively South Asian-influenced score by Harry Partch. All Fours, to challenging music by Bartók, is more strident and darker—literally, with many wearing black costumes against a crimson backdrop, in contrast with a team wearing white. 

Domingo Estrada, Christina Sahaida, Courtney Lopes in Castor and Polllux. Photo: Danica Paulos

The dancers repeatedly held one arm outstretched, the other hand cupped over an ear as if straining to hear or notice something; they hold a thumbs-up pose; or fling their arms back, raptor style. Its more serious tone and bold movements balanced the lighter, more harmonious feel of his newer work, but as a whole, the program represented Morris’ range. I'm glad the company chose to show at the Joyce rather than their in-house black box studio, as in previous years—these works deserve the formality of a proscenium, a larger audience, and professional production elements.

Farewell to Domingo Estrada, Jr., retiring after joining the company in 2009. His lush groundedness and warm presence will be missed.


On a more somber note, as of this writing, neither Danspace Project nor PS 122 have announced fall 2023 seasons yet. These are two pillars of post-modern dance presentation in New York, and thus the dance world. The cultural sector is rapidly shrinking, shifting, and taking drastic measures to survive a landscape decimated by the pandemic and changed priorities, likely on a personal, corporate, and governmental level. It seems like every presenter has slashed staff and programming, out of necessity. What happens next? And what happens to the next generation of artists, admin and supporters? It seems like climate change of a different ilk—if not literal life and death, then dire consequences for the life of art.

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