Mark Morris Dance Group makes its annual Seattle visit Friday night at the Paramount

By R.M. Campbell

Time passes. Is it possible that the Mark Morris Dance Group has been visiting Seattle for 25 years? It is. Morris is now middle-aged, as is everyone else still around from those days, at the very least. On the Boards was the first to bring the company here in its funky space off Yesler. Then, Morris outgrew that for Meany Hall, which presented the company for years until it got too expensive. For the past there years, the Seattle Symphony and Paramount Theatre have co-produced the annual visit. Thank goodness. Who does not want to see the Morris company on a regular basis?

Sometimes he brings new work. Not this year. On Friday night there was “Gloria,” his first major work from the 1980’s. The other two works were only slightly younger: “A Lake,” premiered at Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C., by the White Oak Dance Project, which Morris co-founded with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in 1993, and “Jesu, meine Freude,” commissioned by Dance Umbrella in Boston and premiered in that city two years later.

These are all major works by Morris which reveal him at his most lyrical, fluid and quietly moving. Set to a Haydn horn concerto (D Major), the work is exhilarating in its limpid evocation of nature, aided by Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and James E. Ingalls’ lighting design. The music is Haydn at his most free-flowing and ebullient, with the French horn given glorious music to play, which Mark Robbins, associate principal of the Seattle Symphony, did. So too Morris’ choreography. It is balletic in shape, mostly in the arms and torso. And how well it works both for the sake movement itself and its linkage to Haydn, wonderfully played by members of the Seattle Symphony, conducted by a former associate conductor Christian Knapp. The whole piece is about low-key, but dynamic relationships, self-confidence and poise. How well these dancers are looking, handsomely trained and rehearsed. The combination of “rigor and relaxation” was especially admirable Nothing pops out, rather the movement flows easily and smoothly, like a romantic poem without any sentimentality. .

One of the pleasures of watching “Jesu, meine Freude,” is to see how Morris reacts the music. His instincts are unfailing. Sometimes there is a direct correlation and some not, something more subtle. On any number of times, Morris anticipates when Bach is going to do. Morris has always had a keen response to the music at hand. That seems even more so in “Jesu,” Dressed
flowing white, the dancers move with uncommon grace, solemn and eloquent.

Set to Bach’s famous cantata of the same name, the work is very much a communal celebration. This is nothing new for Morris. There are individuals in group pieces but they never stray far the whole. Certainly not in “Jesu.” There is counterpoint between the music and movement, never obvious but always telling and interesting. There were plenty of challenges for the Tudor Choir which sang Bach’s great music. They were supported by a continuo trio of Eric Gaenslen, cello; Jonathan Green, double bass, and Colin Fowler, organ.

“Gloria” was danced a lot by the Morris company in the 1980’s then fell out of the company’s repertory. I always missed it. A few years ago it returned. It looked in good shape Friday night. It has its moments of piety with wide-open arms, dramatic emphases and intensity. To lighten that, Morris has incorporated small and large idiosyncratic gestures only Morris could devise. They are not the main sentence or paragraph but its punctuation, as only Morris can punctuate. They are both fun and revealing. One was reminded of Morris’ constant inventiveness, stemming from his earliest days as a choreographer. It is always good, and necessary, to see new work, but the old work should never be neglected, especially when it is as good as “Gloria.”

Knapp conducted the Haydn and Bach. He was a superb conductor at the symphony, and obviously nothing has changed, as his career develops. Rarely does one hear such excellent playing from a pit orchestra. The Haydn was a revelation. The Bach, with the Tudor Choir, seemed a little more uphill. The surprise conductor in “Gloria” was Morris himself. I was dubious at first but he conducted with brio and clarity. No apologies required.

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