Art appreciation was evident across the tiers of the Granada Theatre at Thursday night’s presentation by UCSB Arts & Lectures, closing its dance season with what may have been repetitive at times but added a multitude of unusual and unseen flavors to the phenomenon of dance.
I’ve never cared for the term “abstract art,” but it thoroughly encapsulates the feel of what genius choreographer Mark Morris does with dance. That every member of the audience left the theater with a unique viewpoint of what they had seen is proof of the mighty value in his work, whether you like or not.
The opening piece of Mark Morris Dance Group titled “All Fours” instantly gave us a taste of what the New York City dance scene has been doing for a very long time. Choreography that flirted with the brilliance and style of Agnes de Mille and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, a seasoned Broadway musical designer, transported us to the pioneer days of modern dance. Simple, quirky black costumes that were more like street clothes, set against a red-hot backdrop and with music by the great Bela Bartok, these duets and group dances intentionally melded into each other throughout the night.
When two men held a girl in a creepy, twisted upside-down lift, it registered in our brains that this was Morris at his best. The marvelous eclectic shapes against the monotone backdrops made the evening seem more of a viewing of a master’s collection of art than a live dance performance.
The second piece, “Festival Dance,” had a Slavic quality about it but without the heel-clicking, hand-flicking showiness that comes with a lot national dance. The amazing MMDG Music Ensemble must be mentioned for their superb musicianship, and it was hard to believe we were only hearing violin, cello and piano in the wonderful score by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. This is another extraordinary gift Morris has bestowed upon the MMDG dancers and his audiences; that he has employed his own music ensemble and that they dance only to live music is an almost impossible undertaking altogether. The result is that the dancers shine as musicians themselves, and this draws in the audience like no other company has done this past dance season.
Morris’ dancers possess plenty of technique, but the overriding strength is in their powerful ability to interpret a lyrical and visceral translation of the compositions with which they dance. Shapes and patterns to die for, and comedy thrown in here and there, the dancers never stop moving. It was witnessing dancers and music meeting somewhere midair on the stage, and sending out a powerful love song to the audience.
The last piece, “V,” also exuded the flavor of national dances without attempting to re-create their rhythms of copy the shapes of their steps. There was something quite genius in the subtlety of this. For instance, one section hinted at Irish step dancing, but only in the swiftness of the dancers moving back and forward in diagonal lines. There was a little stagnancy when droves of dancers walked across the stage on hands and feet like preying mantis. Only after they’d passed another group of crawlers, they stepped up to their feet, and we got the sense that only these few were evolving into walking and dancing beings.
Again, the costumes by Pakledinaz, this time a vibrant blue against a paler green, not only complemented the dance but kept appearing in opposing patterns, which catapulted a kind of algorithm out into the house, testing our mathematical prowess.
Morris himself was undoubtedly the star of this show. His choreography constantly refreshes itself and turns itself inside out, breaking into smaller pieces in diametric oppositions every few beats. Every second is a perfect-picture moment in itself — an astounding achievement to witness.
While all the dancers equally shared the weight, and none was singled out to shine alone, it was also refreshing to see “modern” dancers smiling and enjoying themselves in what is usually a facially expressionless medium.