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ON THE MARK

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Fifteen dancers enter and exit through exposed lighting towers standing at the side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s opera house stage like wings. Glowing vertical panels hang above, marked with designer Stephen Hendee’s ruled geometry. The high-tech set is the stage for Mark Morris’ latest dance, "Violet Cavern," which premiered at BAM on June 8.

This dance could be described as geologic with its passages of very slow movement, and in the grandiose feeling of the music and of the dance - a confluent inspiration. The triumphant epic features lyrical details in strains of tinkling piano and softly screeching strings.

Pianist Ethan Iverson, former music director of the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), continues the relationship now; he composed the score of "Violet Cavern." The new creation was only weeks ago titled "Seven Visions" for the seven movements of Iverson’s score. Described as "renegade" on the band’s Columbia Records Web site, Iverson’s fusion jazz trio, The Bad Plus, played "Violet Cavern" live for the dance of the same name. The piece is wholly engaging and danceable for the Morris Group. In other hands, the challenge could be daunting.

The music’s ever-changing character variegates the dance. In the 50-minute duration of the performance, spectators are transported to an eerie, futuristic setting. Michael Chybowski’s spectacular lighting scheme includes washes of solid red, violet or green that break up the dance’s moody phrases of different tempos and energy levels.

The dance sometimes proceeds at a glacial pace in sitting and prone positions that lend themselves to low levels of mobility; but the dancers are not relaxed. They’re stretched into stiff extensions or actually moving across the floor in improbable and seemingly stationary positions.

A dancer walks holding the hands of two others lying parallel, appearing to effortlessly drag them. At the same time, the two seem to glide of their own volition - walking the walker. The ambiguous transit creates an ethereal quality where it seems possible that the stage itself is moving. Reflections on the shiny floor also have the effect of levitating the dancers. A seeming weightlessness is achieved that brings their supported leaps to greatest heights.

When the group of 15 is onstage, their fluid movement can seem patterned on that of a flock of starlings. Arms wave as only those of the finest dancers can. But this peaceful unison is broken by a startlingly violent stunt in which partners are thrown to the ground. A very fast section reels almost out of control. It has the feel of an improvised jam that’s a bit off kilter. Even Joe Bowie, who steps like a natural jazz dancer seems to struggle with this super-quick sequence.

Winding up, the troupe spins like tops. Black stripes down the sides of their gray bicycle shorts or pants wend around the dancers; most of them drop to the floor but two keep on. The music has stopped and the sound of four bare feet squeaking on the waxed flooring is a last humble, audible gesture.

The June 8 program opened with "All Fours." In that work, eight dancers are in black dress while Craig Beisecker and Bradon McDonald, Julie Worden and Marjorie Folkman stand out for duets in off-white colors in two movements of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4.

Nicole Pearce’s lighting breaks and ends dance phrases with flashes of red fill.

Dancers gesture listening, prayer or surrender, balancing on each other’s knees for height. Worden and Folkman fly, carried across the stage by Bowie and Charlton Boyd. The men in black disappear into the dark set. They touch each other’s mouths as if after love or to quell strong emotion. In a lonesome end to one movement, McDonald collapses onstage after beseeching to a departing friend or lover. The reverent gestures are integral to the dance.

"All Fours" brings out a contemporary edge to modern Hungarian composer Bartok. The composer and choreographer share an interest in folk forms and they are integrated into "All Fours." But the piece, performed live by MMDG’s own resident quartet, features false starts characteristic of our postmodern era.

The men are rough and ready, and the women are statuesque but bold in aerial acrobatics. Overall, the dancers’ enactment of preparedness and response is refreshing and invokes the trust of the audience - response to a world in which loss is an everyday reality. They finish in an asymmetric formation with the off-white clad quartet on top but facing upstage.

Both dances have an aura of triumph; the aggression in "Violet" seems a cruel necessity. The triumph seems more an embrace of life. Understated miming gestures reveal traditional themes of love and loss in this pure dance idiom. While integrated jazzy movements bring mixed results in "Violet Caverns," Mark Morris Dance Group meets the challenges of the music with a vengeance in both dances with innovative movement.



The Mark Morris Dance Group will perform "My Party," "Going Away Party" and "Grand Duo" at Celebrate Brooklyn on July 17. The performance will take place in the Prospect Park Bandshell. Enter at Prospect Park West and Ninth Street. Suggested admission is $3. For more information, call (718) 855-7882.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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