The grand Festival Dance called for a dozen dancers onstage.
The grand Festival Dance called for a dozen dancers onstage.
Courtesy of the Society for the Performing Arts

The Mark Morris Dance Group Tells Stories About the (Sometimes Comic) Human Condition

In a moment of visual hijinks, a man and a woman in the middle of a budding courtship turn to each other with faces full of passion and, no, they do not promenade, but grind their pelvises in the air back and forth. It's one of a series of laugh-out-loud moments in A Wooden Tree (2012), a dance full of literal humor of a bawdy nature that's performed to the absurdist folk songs of Ivor Cutlor. Dressed in the threads of '60s East Villagers, the cast tells stories of courtship, friendship, living and dying. It's all in good fun, even the spontaneous vulgarity of hip thrusts to convey serious romance.

A Wooden Tree was one of four repertory works the Mark Morris Dance Group brought to the Wortham Center's Cullen stage on the evenings of January 31 and February 1. Thanks to the Society for the Performing Arts and its impressive Tudor Family Great American Dance Series, the Houston audience was treated to one of the most enriching and fulfilling evenings of dance from a visiting dance company in recent memory.

The dances of Mark Morris are known for their wonderful musicality, and unlike the repertoires of most modern dance companies, much of his work is performed to live music. The first piece on the program, The Argument (1999), is one of those pieces. Set to the music of Robert Schumann, it's a six-movement dance that explores the interactions of men and women through a series of compelling duets and paired ensemble work.

There is no story here, but the intimacy that is revealed by the movement is enough to fill several volumes. Gravity is the underlying principal; it takes hold of one initiation point, then the entire body is pulled in that direction. It's a marvel how every note of the music is filled with the somberness of the body's downward pull, which makes the drama onstage that much more palpable. Cellist Wolfram Koessel and pianist Colin Fowler, both members of the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble, give Schumann's music a sonorous heartbeat for the dancers to pulse to; they do not merely dance to the live accompaniment, but become an extension of it. There is friction in the suggested lives of these people, but there's no climactic moment of opposition. Rather, men and women work through the complexities of their existence in beautiful releases and turns that are airy as a spring breeze.

The second half of the program opened with the hilarious situational comedy of The "Tamil Film Songs in Stereo" Pas de Deux (1983). This short and sweet dance offers a peek into a typical studio scenario in which a nervous and wide-eyed pupil takes a private lesson from an austere yet immaculate dance master. The maestro is dressed in sea-blue tights and an emerald leotard, and the eager student arrives in tight princess pink.

With a distinguished if not slightly absurd mustache, he demonstrates his across-the-floor combinations with the magnanimity of a handsome raj. She attempts to follow him, but hesitates in her self-consciousness. Her flustered gestures in comparison to his sculpted movement provided half the laughs, as any student of dance will instantly recognize himself or herself in the student's blundering ambition to replicate the artistry of her adored teacher. The other half comes from the dance vocabulary itself, an impossible mix of Martha Graham strides, jazz runs, layouts, ponies and Hindu poses.

All this is accompanied by Tamil film songs, which provide the back-and-forth exchanges between dancers. He demonstrates, she follows and fails. By the time she breaks down into tears, the dance has entered slapstick territory. It's like watching a classic animation short with no dialogue, with only the music and the movement of the characters onscreen to draw out laugh after laugh. In the end, the mustachioed maestro proves to be anything but a tyrant, and rewards his student with a tutu and fuzzy pink tiara. Ecstatic, she performs his combinations with glee and the dance ends with all smiles, just like every good Indian film story. Much-deserved applause went to Brian Lawson and Stacy Martorana, both of whom danced their parts with exceptional comedic timing and a keen understanding of the caricatures they were performing.

The closing piece was the grand Festival Dance, which premiered in 2011. This gorgeous group dance opens with the embrace of a man and a woman. From this static image, a continuous flow of over-curves and triplets comes forth. I was particularly struck by the shapes and lines made by the Mark Morris dancers. All too often the body is used to create striking geometric configurations that are pretty in their stateliness but feel inhuman in the contrived nature of choreography. Not here. The bodies that populate this rich and warm-spirited festival are most definitely alive. Every arabesque, every attitude turn, every long-limbed shape feels full-bodied and buoyed by breath.

Festival Dance calls for a dozen dancers, and with an ensemble this large, it's easy for the stage to feel cramped and cluttered. Again, this is not the case. The choreography is full of sweeping entrances and exits so that the energy is always fresh and invigorating, but the moments where all 12 dancers are visible make for some truly special sequences. In the third movement, dancers enter from both sides of the stage holding hands in Balkan folk dance fashion. Koessel and Fowler were joined by Georgy Valtchev on violin, and his light and springy playing gave Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Piano Trio No. 5 in E Major, Op. 83 an almost folk ethos. All the better to dance to. The many ripples in this dance are suggestive of water and wind, nature that is life-giving and life-affirming.

SPA's decision to bring the Mark Morris Dance Group to Houston as part of the Tudor family's celebration of dance was not only an inspired one, but an essential one. Mark Morris's dances are noteworthy in that they are not academic exercises or choreographies that are arranged by esoteric experiments in movement. Rather, they are full-fledged theatrical experiences through which dance can tell stories about the human condition, even if that includes a laugh or two.


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