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Mark Morris Dance…a contrast of two acts

Roy Berko

(Member, Dance Critics Association)

An interesting audience reaction greeted the two acts of the recent Mark Morris Dance Company’s near sold-out performance at the Palace Theatre.  Overheard comments at intermission of the performance cosponsored by Dance Cleveland, PlayhouseSquare, and Cleveland State University, were statements such as, “That was great.”  “I never knew dance could be such fun.”  “Morris is really creative.”  Unfortunately, after the second act there was general silence as the large audience left the Palace theatre.

Why were there different reactions?

The opening act consisted of two Morris choreographed pieces, CANONIC  ¾ STUDIES and FESTIVAL DANCE.

Mark Morris once said, “I like to see people working together.  What we call a giant solo in my company is about four bars long while twenty other people  are doing something.   Noted for combining modern dance, folk dance, traditional ballet and opera, he often combines simple steps into an intricate set of rhythmic movements.

CANONIC ¾ STUDIES, typical of Morris at his delightful best, showcased the dancers jumping, frolicking, falling, crawling, twirling, and prancing in perfect time to the sprightly “Piano Waltzes” arranged by Harriet Cavalli.   There was a youthful, playful innovation to the work which enthralled the audience.   The piece was danced to the well played live piano sounds of Colin Fowler.

Set to Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s “Piano Trio no. 5 in E Major, Op. 83,” FESTIVAL DANCE highlighted Morris’s love of European folk dance.   The well performed live accompaniment by Cyrus Beraukhim (violin), Andrew Janss (cello) and Colin Fowler (piano) added to the joyousness of the performance.

The three segments, WALTZ, MARCH, and POLKA each contained many traditional movements including foot slapping, line dancing, czardas prancing, galloping, and partner switching.  As with the opening number the conclusion was met with applause and whoops of joy.

Morris has been involved with opera for over 20 years, directing and choreographing productions for the likes of The Metropolitan Opera, New York City  Opera, and The Royal Opera of Covent Garden.

The long second act, which showcased Morris’s operatic ties, was met with less enthusiasm.  The long operatic ballet,  SOCRATES, was set to three movements of Erik Satie’s suite, “Socrate.”

As tenor Zach Finkelstein proficiently sang in French, accompanied by Colin Fowler at the piano,  dancers, dressed as traditional Greek statues, enacted segments of the Greek free-will philosopher’s  life, concluding with his imposed death.

As Finkelstein sang, the words were translated into English on a smallish screen near the top of the Palace Theatre’s huge proscenium arch.  It was impossible to read the translations and watch the dancers far below, causing a definite disconnect.  To add to the disconnect, the actions on stage, though well danced,  did not enact the story line.   As one audience member said, “After a while I just gave up on reading and watched the dancers, but that didn’t help as I couldn’t figure out the story.”  Muted applause greeted the final curtain.

Capsule judgement:  Mark Morris Dance Group’s first Cleveland appearance in five years was a mixed bag.  After pleasing the audience with a delightful first act, the tone switched drastically in the second half, which though well presented, was tedious. 

Next up for Dance Cleveland, on May 2, 3 and 4 at the Allen Theatre, is LUCKY PLUSH, billed as ”One of the most accessible exercises in modern dance you’ll ever see.”