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Eclectic and Whimsical: Two New York premieres by Mark Morris Dance Group

by Rajika Puri
April 6, 2003
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4111

Eclectic and Whimsical: Two New York premieres by Mark Morris Dance Group

by Rajika Puri
April 6, 2003

The opening night program of the Mark Morris Dance Group's eighteenth engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music included two New York premiers: Kolam, created in collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project (See Boston Symphony review), and Serenade, a solo performed by Mark Morris himself. Drawing from several cultures, both dances are a blend of the eclectic and whimsical - a hall-mark of Mr. Morris' style.

Most of Mr. Morris' dances are set to works by western classical composers and cover the gamut from Bach and Brahms to Shoenberg and Virgil Thompson. Yet from the early days of his company, which was launched in 1980 at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York, he has also been drawn to the folk and popular music of many different cultures. He has choreographed to traditional songs from Romania, Thailand, Tahiti, and India, as well as to the very American music of Jimi Hendrix, and Stephen Foster.

In fact Mr. Morris is noted for his passionate love of music. Moreover, in 1996 he committed that his company would perform only to live music. In Kolam, the music is played by the two composers themselves - Indian percussion virtuoso Zakir Hussain and jazz pianist Ethan Iverson - accompanied by a cellist and a bass player. In Serenade, set to Lou Harrison's Serenade for Guitar, the musicians - a guitarist and a percussionist - actually share the stage with Mr. Morris.

As Serenade begins we see Mr. Morris wearing a white wrap-around top and a black skirt, somewhat reminiscent of a sarong, designed by Isaac Mizrahi. He peeps out from behind a fan, playing with it as might a Japanese buyo dancer. Suddenly he snaps it shut, and we are transported to Spain. At times he playfully manipulates different props - a stick, or a lighted cylinder; at others he simply circles his head, while his arms undulate sinuously. Whether he accompanies himself with a belly-dancer's finger cymbals, or plays castanets as in a Spanish jota - regardless of the cultural reference - he weaves a whimsical whole that is pure 'Morris'.

Kolam is Mr. Morris' third foray into the world of Indian music and dance. Two pieces from the early 'eighties, (O Rangasaayee and Tamil Film Songs in Stereo) focused on south Indian tradition. With Kolam he shows us - as he did in the 1996 World Power, which was inspired by Balinese music and dance - how beautifully he can capture the very essence of movements from an alien tradition, and then blend them into his particular style of American modern dance.

Yoga headstands, poses from Indian classical dance, and the stamping of feet adorned by ankle bells punctuate a dance for ten performers who never try to hide the fact that they are western trained. They lift each other off the ground. They hold themselves erect - and relatively straight-legged - as they slap their feet on the floor. They leap and run as no Indian dancer would. Like the enormous backdrop, a colorful painting by Howard Hodgkin, which captures the idea of a kolam, or south Indian floor design made with white rice-flour paste, their movements capture the idea of Indian dance rather than try to recreate it.

The music, of Kolam, too, explores Indian themes. Mr. Iverson's sections of the music, though inspired by Indian music, are grounded in western compositional techniques. Trained in north Indian music, Mr. Hussain introduces rhythms from his musical tradition, rather than those of the south India that is suggested by the idea of kolam. Similarly, he uses the cello to evoke a north Indian instrument, the sarangi, which is what accompanies him during his traditional tabla recitals. In all, however, the composition follows western structures which, unfortunately, leave little room for the brilliant improvisations that characterize Mr Hussain's genius, not only as percussionist, but as prime instigator of the World Music that is so much the rage these days.

The premieres followed two dances that complement the Asian flavors of Kolam and Serenade. In New Love Song Waltzes set in '82 to Brahms' Libeslieder Walzer, we see the lyricism of works such as L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and V from 2001, which are also set to works by German composers. Going Away Party, performed to songs by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys is rooted in Americana. All in all a goodly taste of Mr. Morris' amazing range.


Kolam as performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group
Photo courtesy of Susana Millman



Kolam as performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group
Photo courtesy of Susana Millman

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