A review of a performance of “Pacific” and other works by the Mark Morris Dance Group at Meany Hall on March 5, 2015.
In an uncertain world, one thing is for sure. Whenever the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) performs locally, audience reaction will be wildly enthusiastic. The fact that Morris is from Seattle has created a special bond between his troupe and the community that birthed him literally and artistically.
The good news about the program on view this weekend is that each of the four works demonstrates Morris’ most appealing qualities — sophisticated musicality (enhanced by live performance of the MMDG Music Ensemble), exuberant group dancing, wide-ranging use of a bare stage and non-dance steps that are deceptively difficult to execute.
The most successful of the four ballets is “Pacific,” which Morris created for San Francisco Ballet in 1995 and which Pacific Northwest Ballet performed several years ago. Not surprisingly, it looks quite different on Morris’ modern-trained dancers than on ballet bodies. This time around the expansive movement seems more grounded into the floor, the leg extensions lower and the upper bodies looser.
Mark Morris Dance Group
8 p.m. March 7, UW World Series at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $53-$58 (206-543-4880 or uwworldseries.org).
What hasn’t changed is the graceful way Morris moves his dancers through complex choreography that evokes both the Pacific Ocean and Asian cultures. Martin Pakledinaz’s flowing costumes (culottes for bare-chested men, floor-length dresses for women) suggest rippling water, while certain steps, especially a repeating gesture in which the dancers raise one arm in a curve with the other pointing down, reflect dance styles of Asia. “Pacific” is a beautiful, gentle work showcasing Morris at his balletic best.
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Morris created the program’s three other pieces for his company in the past two years. Two of them, “Words” and “Crosswalk,” are high-energy works that demonstrate Morris’ extraordinary talent for large ensemble dancing. Both suggest school kids frolicking at the beach (“Words”) or in the schoolyard (“Crosswalk”) and both intersperse dazzling turns and falls with an almost pedestrian, non-dance vocabulary.
Of the two, “Crosswalk” is the more dynamic, with its pratfalls, flying somersaults and an especially riveting section in which a stone-faced ensemble crosses and recrosses the stage. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s flouncy orange and yellow dresses for the three women add even more brightness to the bouncy sections. “Words” has some engaging moments, particularly when the ensemble of 16 dancers rotates together with arms outstretched, but there isn’t enough variety to the movement or mood to sustain interest for the ballet’s duration.
The final piece on the program, “Jenn and Spencer,” is a departure for Morris. It’s a male-female duet, a genre in which Morris has been least successful, but here Morris is able to aptly convey the private drama between two lovers, an emotional Sam Black and Jenn Weddel, in the evening’s most viscerally stirring work.
One of the greatest challenges for any artistic director is to keep a company at the same performing level over time as members retire or otherwise come and go. The current MMDG company contains a number of dancers who have been with Morris for at least seven years, including Laurel Lynch and Weddel, plus a few newcomers, most notably Seattle-born Aaron Loux, who ensure that more than anything, it’s the overall effect of the ensemble that takes center stage at any MMDG performance.