- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The highlight of a visit to the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Lee, Mass., earlier this month was a stunning performance by the redoubtable Mark Morris Dance Group. (The group appeared the week before with Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood.)

The program was vintage Morris. His range extends from the sublime (for example, his acknowledged masterpiece, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”) to such dances as the cheekily vulgar “Going Away Party,” set to a recording of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. It is a good-natured sendup of country music and mores, but its context gives it an extra fillip.

The dance was created toward the end of Mr. Morris’ tenure as director of dance at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, a post he held from 1988 to 1991. It had been a stormy residency: He created the heavenly “L’Allegro” in Brussels, but there was no love lost between the conservative Belgian public and the iconoclastic Mr. Morris.

In that context, “Going Away Party,” with its cheerfully brash American swagger, suggests a certain nose-thumbing as Mr. Morris and his gang prepared to depart for home.

Balancing that was the rapturous flow of “New Love Song Waltzes,” set to the music of Brahms and two dances to music by Lou Harrison. All three musical scores were performed live.

Mr. Morris’ musical reach is astounding and has brought a whole new audience of music lovers to his performances.

A British music critic proclaimed, “He has done more to revive interest in, to dignify and illuminate classical music to a broad audience than any conductor or musician of the last 20 years.”

The two Harrison works were a case in point.

The first was a solo, “Serenade,” that the choreographer first performed last spring at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.

Mr. Morris, a burly 46-year-old, appears on stage less often these days, but he is masterful, moving with authority and rhythmic audacity in a work that, reflecting its Asian-influenced score, has its roots in the grounded footwork and extravagant arm gestures of Asian dance. Like his friend and colleague, Mikhail Baryshnikov (the two founded the dance group Whiteoaks together), he is an inspiring example of the riches that reside in maturity.

The humanity that distinguishes the work of Mr. Morris springs in part from his early training in folk dance, which gives his dances a naturalness and sense of spontaneity that are unique.

“Grand Duo,” also to Harrison music, is a work of thrilling power, moving from an atavistic group engaged in communal rites, gathering strength as the dancers pound their groins, beat the floor with their feet and fling arms in jagged patterns that build with overwhelming force.

Its physicality grabs the audience by the throat and culminates in a catharsis for dancers and audience alike.


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