Sunshine and shadow: The Mark Morris Dance Group returns to Sydney

The Mark Morris Dance Group returned to Australia for the second time this year with a brief season at the Sydney Opera House.

Morris travelled to Sydney with his 18 dancers and his music ensemble.

The Sydney season (following the company’s performances of Mozart Dances at the Perth International Arts Festival last February) was a quartet of works, old and new – Pacific, A Wooden Tree, Whelm and Festival Dance.

The uniting factor of these four different pieces was the unity and intimacy of the ensemble.

The dancers are dissimilar in their appearance but similar in the way they connect with one another, in particular as they dance in Morris’ trademark linked-hand circle dance, a pattern that relates to both medieval dance and the baroque period but most of all to folk dance, a form that Morris knows well from his early performing days.

In the Sydney program the stand out was A Wooden Tree, a dance theatre piece for eight dancers who act out the words of more than a dozen songs composed and sung by the late Ivor Cutler, a Scottish poet, singer and musician who was much admired by The Beatles.

Cutler has been described as the ultimate outsider’s outsider, a man who didn’t give a toss what anyone thought about him and who sang about “bugs, herrings and his father pointing at thistles, his faithful harmonium wheezing along with him”.

The last time I saw a dance piece so engaging and funny as A Wooden Tree was in 2013 when the Sydney Dance Company performed Alexander Ekman’s Cacti.

The dancers in A Wooden Tree interpret Cutler’s songs as a shabbily-clothed bunch of school kids ‘havin’a bit of a larf’ but beneath the apparent jollity, was their impeccable synchrony of movement.

The last of Cutler’s songs summed up the happy/crazy ambience.

You are the centre of your little world and I am of mine
Now and again we meet for tea, we’re two of a kind.
This is our universe, cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos, you and me.

The opener of the program was Pacific, danced to the music of the American composer, Lou Harrison, and choreographed by Morris for the San Francisco Ballet 20 years ago.

This year the Mark Morris Dance Group performed the work for the first time but with the balletic perspective (and pointe work) removed, Pacific had a retrograde look of neither the one thing nor the other.

Rather than allowing the company the freedom of ballet exactitude, Pacific looked both restricted and dated.

Morris initially made the work for ballet dancers (all those jetes and faille) and that’s the way I’d prefer to see it.

The sheer and vibrantly coloured skirts for both men and women are flattering and attractive but the motifs of scooped arms, backs bent forward and one arm held aloft with a ‘broken’ wrist became all too predictable and repetitive.

The second half of the program opened with Whelm, an archaic word for ‘submerge’ or ‘bury’ and danced to three Debussy piano pieces, the last being La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral).

Whelm is performed against a black backcloth with the four dancers also in black from head to toe, only revealing their faces.

I had an excellent seat in the stalls but despite the side lighting, the darkness of the stage and the costumes detracted from the impact of the work.

I wondered if Morris, now approaching the age of 60, might be contemplating the inevitable – the passage of time.

The dancers, two men and two women, appeared to be depicting a ritual of finality, with the central character wearing a hoodie, the first of the women wearing a veil and the others wearing tight fitted helmet-caps.

Whelm is a dance macabre that represents the words of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which the character Death boasts: “No one escapes me”.

The blackness gave way to the final piece of the Sydney season, Festival Dance, in which Johann Hummel’s Piano Trio No 5 (violin, cello and piano) was the launch pad for the 12 dancers who replicated Hummel’s waltz, march and polka.

In plain-as-plain-can-be skirts, trousers and tops, the dancers resembled a gathering of all-American teens enjoying good clean fun at a high school dance, and while the connection and empathy between the dancers remained an impressive element of the season, for me, the performance by the musicians (Fowler, Georgy Valtchev (violin) and Andrew Janss (cello) overwhelmed, in a good way, the choreography itself.

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Mark Morris Dance Group, Whelm, photo © Prudence Upton

Mark Morris Dance Group, Pacific, photo © Prudence Upton

Mark Morris Dance Group, A Wooden Tree, photo ©Tim Summers

Mark Morris Dance Group, Pacific, photo © Prudence Upton

Mark Morris Dance Group, Festival Dance, photo © Stephanie Berger