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Mark Morris, Pacific (premier 1995/company premier 2005). Photo Courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Mark Morris


By Deanna Sirlin

“Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture” is a quote attributed to many people, including Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson. In all probability, it was coined by Martin Mull, the actor, musician, and painter. Martin Mull is indeed interesting to me as he is an artist who trained at the Rhode Island School of Design who has been acting as his day job to support his painting practice. I love to read writing about painting, and many dancers would probably agree that dancing about architecture could be very interesting. I am going to add yet another wrinkle to the history of this statement: A painter writing about dance is like . . .


Mark Morris performed with his dance group in Atlanta at the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University in February 2000. I was very lucky to see this performance. Morris himself performed in one of the pieces that had a love/sex theme and moved around the stage like some delicious cupid. It was fantastic, although many critics at the time chastised him for performing, saying he was too old, too chubby, too this, too that. I found him and the four works performed utterly delightful, and I loved Morris’s irreverence, irony, and originality.


It took fifteen years and Leslie Gordon, the current Artistic Director of the Rialto to bring the Mark Morris Dance Group back to this city in October of 2015. They performed three works; the first was Pacific, a work with nine dancers and music by Lou Harrison - Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano; 3rd and 4th movements. I would like to make note of Mark Morris’s demand for live music, as a particular relationship between music and dance is essential to each of his works.  Mark Morris has said, “A better question is, why does everybody else think [live music is] not of primary importance?” Lou Harrison was an American composer who died in 2003. He was known for his use of non-western elements in his compositions. I mention this because the title Pacific has many connotations that include the water, the place, and the culture all of which are combined in this dance work.The Pacific Ocean is not only on the West Coast of North America, where this work premier in the coastal city of Seattle, but extends very far to the East.

Mark Morris, Pacific (premier 1995/company premier 2005). Photo Courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Listen to Lou Harrison's Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano here.

Many of the dancers’ movements have a particular curve of a raised arm and a lifted leg that are reminiscent of dance in Southern India. The fluidity of this work, coupled with the emotional gesture of the movement, is much like the forms found in many abstract expressionist paintings. The color of the work is primarily in blues and greens, and the flowing costumes are like flowers that are hung from the waist with the petals opening as the dancers raise their legs off the ground. The male dancers were bare chested and the women dancers’ fluid skirts continued up their bodies in soft but very fitted tank shirts, making them seem floral, but also creating the most elegant and graceful flowing of fabric that opened and swirled as the dancers moved very much in parallel to the musical and melodic sound.


Mark Morris, A Wooden Tree (premiered 2012). Photos Courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Mark Morris is an artist who does not believe in branding. When you go to one of his dance concerts you are not quite sure in what direction each of his pieces will take you. Wooden Tree is a work from 2012 with eight dancers that runs twenty-four minutes. In this work with music and words by Ivor Cutler (Mikhail Baryshnikov was one of the dancers in this work when it premier in Seattle in 2012). Here's A Health for Simon; Stick Out Your Chest; The Market Place; Rubber Toy; Trouble, Trouble; Little Black Buzzer; I Got No Common Sense; Deedle, Deedle, I Pass; A Wooden Tree; Phonic Poem; I'm Going In A Field; I Love You But I Don't Know What I Mean; Beautiful Cosmos; Cockadoodledon't:  these are the titles of Cutler’s songs that Morris uses in this piece. This is the one performance for which Morris uses recorded sound, as Cutler’s voice and his renditions of his songs are so particular and peculiar that Morris felt that anyone else performing these songs would lose the essence and authenticity of the music. Ivor Cutler, who died in 2006, was a Scottish poet, songwriter and humorist. I include the dates of these composers because I think it is significant that Morris chose music written during in his lifetime by artists who were part of our contemporary existence. His choices of music might be seen by some as esoteric, but they have a presence and meaning in the dance. Ivor Cutler was an idiosyncratic composer and performer, and Morris brings humor and seriousness together in this lively and funny composition. The dancers are dressed in folksy frocks with caps and swing skirts; they wear woolen vests and sunflowers pinned to them as they dance in forms that evoke square dance, line dance, and other types of folk and social dance. This dance takes you on a journey into the popular culture of the past, yet goes beyond the stereotypes the viewer may envision.

Listen to Ivor Cutler's "A Wooden Tree" here.

The final performance was Festival Dance from 2011, a work for twelve dancers with music, performed live, by Johann Nepomuk Hummel - Piano Trio No. 5 in E Major, Op. 83. The instrumentation included violin, cello, and piano. Hummel was a student of Mozart known for his “brilliant virtuosity, charm and wit” and was one of the most sought-after pianists and composers of early 19th century Europe. I found Morris’s choice of music interesting here, as Hummel was not a composer of this century or the last, yet the description of his sensibility could apply to Morris himself. Festival Dance is a buoyant romp between the dancers working both as couples and in ensemble. There is sheer delight in the athletic ability of the dancers and the charm of their movements.

Mark Morris, Festival Dance (premiered 2011). Photo: © 2010 Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

The audience appreciated these pieces immeasurably. At the end of the day, it is clear that MMDG is everything that great art should be: precise in its form and content; sharp and witty; beautiful and thoughtful; and complex, with each layer of movement or costume or music intrinsic to the completed work of art. 




Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer . She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

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