Mark Morris Dance Group was formed in 1980. The Joyce Theater opened doors in 1983. Yet while it has presented dance companies eleven months of the year, the Joyce stage had never hosted a MMDG season until now.
So Tuesday’s opening night felt momentous – even historic – as MMDG finally came to the Joyce. Its two-week run (through August 12) features two different programs, each with four works. All but one feature the live music that is the sine qua non of Morris’ choreography, impeccably performed by members of the MMDG Music Ensemble.
The 475-seat former movie theater is a more intimate setting than the venues in which the company has most regularly appeared in New York City – such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House and various stages where Lincoln Center presented the troupe, often in his large-scale, almost epic full-evening works.
But Morris has such a vast, varied repertoire that he could readily come up with works that can be seen to ideal advantage at the Joyce. The four on Program A range from five to fourteen dancers. It’s an intriguing quartet of works, opening and closing with dances set to exceptional Lou Harrison scores, created 24 years apart.
The dances are presented in reverse chronological order, opening with the most recent, Numerator, from 2017. Morris sets six robust men into action that evokes quiet rituals, especially when Harrison’s Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion is at its purest and most delicately sustained.
The guys first crawl their way across the stage, as if from some unknown distant setting. Their dancing through the five contrasting – often haunting – sections of Harrison’s score includes moments of congenial partnering, others of athletic intensity, and others of meditative stillness. It’s a work that feels innately persuasive, thanks to Morris’ deep insight into Harrison’s music.
A Wooden Tree, from 2012, was the program’s outlier, set to recordings by the very distinctive but oddball Scottish writer/performer Ivor Cutler. Some are introduced by Cutler with cheeky irreverence. Eight dancers in slightly lumpy, quirky costumes suggest a community of working-class, earthy people who are liberated by their imaginations. Encounters and groupings are odd and the movement vocabulary has a proletarian folksiness with a sardonic edge.
In 2007, Morris turned to Bach – as he will again next week for the season’s world premiere. The familiar, sprightly Italian Concerto (played with impeccable verve by Colin Fowler) seems to have set Morris’ imagination free. The dancing is so nimble and multi-faceted I felt I could not take it in on one viewing.
An opening duet for Brandon Randolph and Courtney Lopes, side by side, does not cover a great deal of space. They are too busy articulating brisk eddies of movement that seem to spring organically from the music, with a gorgeous blend of fluidity and control. Sam Black’s central solo has majesty and tragedy. Weighted and precise, his movement suggests a man trapped in a metaphorical prison. A new pair – Dallas McMurray and Christina Sahaida – appears for the third movement, dancing with giddy delight and friskiness. Both intricate and elemental, Italian Concerto comes across as Morris opening a series of doors into the Bach score. It’s musical mastery without pretense.
By program’s end, we have traveled back nearly 25 years, arriving at one of Morris’ most timeless and powerful works, Grand Duo (1993). A true and fiercely demanding ensemble work, it is set to Harrison’s work for violin and piano (Nicholas Tavani and Fowler). Portions of this work evoke a rugged ancient band of figures from the dawn of time. In the two amazing fast sections (Stampede and Polka) with their incredibly layered rhythms, Morris fills the stage with demonic intensity and hurtling patterns. The dancers are both fierce and fearless.
Grand Duo is always an exhilarating, cathartic experience, and certainly has been seen to powerful effect in grand venues. At the Joyce , stunningly lit so the jewel-colored costumes glowed, the ensemble’s rigor and fervor communicated with compressed intensity. It took four decades for Morris to be seen at the Joyce. Next week’s program, with a world premiere as well as a rare revival of a very early work, looks particularly intriguing.
Mark Morris Dance Group | The Joyce Theater | thru August 12
Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia and other publications.