Mark Morris’ Festival Dance
IMAGE: Mark Morris Dance Group in Festival Dance. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Festival Dance is a perfect example of why Mark Morris is a household name in dance and music circles. Houston dance fans will have a chance to see Morris’ seminal work when the company stops at Houston’s Wortham Center through Society for the Performing Arts on Jan. 31, the second of three stops that Mark Morris Dance Group is making this season in Texas. The company stopped in Austin in September through Texas Performing Arts, and will perform in Dallas through TITAS on May 10. In addition to Festival Dance, the Houston program includes A Wooden Tree and The Argument.
We mostly talk about music when we talk about Morris, and we could do that again with Festival Dance. It’s a group work for six couples set to Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Piano Trio No.5 in E Major, Op.83. Like many of his works, it’s a sublimely musical dance. With Festival Dance it doesn’t quite feel right to just leave it at that.
A few years back, I had the extraordinary opportunity to watch this dance many times in order to come up with a two-minute video script for the American Dance Festival. Watching the piece over and over gave me a chance to ask, “What’s really going on here?”
Like many of Morris’ works, there are many layers of appreciation possible beyond the complex musical structure, from the interwoven motifs of the choreography to the actual dancing, which is so natural and easy. One cannot find a speck of affectation in the dancers’ movements. When you see a lift or a turn, there’s no visible preparation; it just happens. There’s also no filtering through one particular dance language. This organic form of dancing allows a direct way of experiencing the music. With no barrier between movement and music, we don’t feel as if something called “interpretation” is going on. Morris’ approach seems to invite us to become better listeners.
There’s more to his strategy. There’s never too much going on; his sense of proportion is expertly employed here. The dance and the music appear to frame each other. The viewer is never overwhelmed or overtaxed, or even split between watching and listening. In fact, the senses merge in what might be the ultimate realization of seeing music. It’s pure expression, and we immediately connect to both the dancers and the music.
We see the dancers as people, rather than abstract movers enlisted to visualize a score. We really get the idea that these six couples know each other and have come together to dance. From a composition standpoint, complexity mixes with this unfussy quality of the dancing. We get depth and ease, which make a potent and rare partnership. It’s just irresistibly charming, intimate, and simply delicious to watch. By the end of the dance, we feel as if we know these dancers and secretly hope to join them in their joyous revelry.