The music in the movement: Mark Morris Dance Group’s Joyce debut

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Grand Duo' at the Joyce Theater. Photo by Danica Paulos.
Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Grand Duo' at the Joyce Theater. Photo by Danica Paulos.

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY.
August 12, 2023.

Dance happens in time, in space — kinetic action happening in a space, in a specific relationship with time. The same could be said of music — textured rhythm vibrating in waves through an area. Mark Morris is known for calling upon the ineffable connection between music and movement; his dances uniquely translate music into the action of moving bodies. His work demonstrates that the music is in the movement, and the movement in the music. 

A bit surprisingly, in its 43 years, the Mark Morris Dance Group had never before performed at the world-renowned Joyce Theater – until this month. They say better late than never, and I daresay enthusiasts of the company would call it worth the wait; the dancers brought to the stage pure ebullience, technical prowess and love for the work. 

The program opened with Tempus Perfectum (2021) – and it’s right there in the title, impeccable timing. The ensemble offered crisp, tenacious movement vocabulary, yet their musicality is what truly grabbed me. They began the work by entering and exiting so quickly, it felt like I could have blinked and missed it. I didn’t quite understand this choice until I experienced the ending, when they had a chance to dance together for a much more sustained period. Thus, that quick entrance and exit felt like a little taste meant to make us crave more – and indeed, for me, it did.

In the meantime, the four dancers (Karlie Budge, Courtney Lopes, Dallas McMurray and Noah Vinson) all had chances to dance alone and in pairs. They passed a movement baton as one ended their section and another danced it, dancing in unison together briefly before completing the transition. Dancers also resurfaced certain gestures and phrases, another effective element of continuity. 

Their performance quality was as vibrant as their costumes, in varied bright colors (costume design by Elizabeth Kurtzman), as well as the softly radiant light bathing the stage (lighting design by Nick Kolin). In true Morris fashion, the score seemed to be the core of it all – Brahms’s Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39. The easeful dynamism of the work was in that score’s notes – quickly jumping here, there and everywhere, yet staying harmonious and cohesive. It so warmly invited zippy jumps, gestures and turns – and these artists took that invitation with glee.  

All Fours (2003) came next, ushering in quite a different tone: something more mysterious, abstract and at times frenetic. The kinetically intelligent embodiment of the music continued, however – such as in a poignant expression of the harmony line by two dancers and the melody line by yet another two (score: Bèla Bartok’s String Quartet #4). The ensemble’s musical talents felt just as clear to me as their physical. 

Toward the latter, the shaping in the movement felt a bit more specific – even geometric – than that of the prior piece. Both felt inventive and exciting. Taylor-esque, All Fours also felt grounded in the stylizing – in both rhythm and shape – the pedestrian locomotion of runs, hops, skips and walks. Add in some more athletic movement and intentional gesture, and it was a recipe to produce something delicious. 

Also notable in this work was color, in both lighting (by Nicole Pearce) and costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) — delineating groups of dancers, as wells as sections of the work, in red, white, black and orange. I wondered if this was the “fours” to which the title refers. That might be one of those questions that stays more intriguing as a question. 

Also partitioning the work were blackouts, “chapter breaks” between sections. Just as I had wondered with the beginning of Tempus Perfectum, I pondered the need for these blackouts. That is until, at the end, all these different colors – on and around the performers – came all together onstage. Morris had effectively established contrast.

The effect that music has on us lies in its contrasts: the highs and lows, the allegro and adagio, the textural soft and strong. It was also a reminder to me to keep the senses and the mind open when taking in art. What you’re looking for might be right around the corner. All in all, through fresh, clever choices and these artists’ affinity for making music visceral, All Fours was pure sensory delight. 

The world premiere of A minor Dance came next. With graceful épaulement and sweet gestures, it brought something softer to the stage. Earth-toned costumes (also by Kurtzman) added to that softness. Nothing in this work felt the need to shout. That might have been because the music (Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827) guided Morris there, with its air of wistfulness, dreaminess, even romance. 

Indeed, perhaps it was just me having become more attuned to the music in Morris’ movement by this point in the program, but – from a quick passé on the change of a note to gliding footwork with other notes swooping and sweeping – I appreciated it even more in this work. A dance in a “minor” key, easeful marinating in that music through that movement — it presented something to soothe yet also, in its own way, rivet. 

Castor and Pollux (1980) closed out the program. With a subtle sense of primal ritual, it brought my mind to Rite of Spring (1913). Just as with that lighting bolt within concert dance history, the dancers leapt small right with the score’s punching musical accents. Frequent circular formations supported that sense of primal ritual – with the circle as a shape in which humans have gathered and moved for far, far longer than we’ve driven in cars or typed on phones. 

A memorable trio offered a downsized, more intimate version of the larger collective that was the work’s ensemble: a community within a community. At any level of human engagement, the work offered only what was elemental – only the essential to build the atmosphere at hand. For Morris, that would of course be a keen illustration of the music (Castor and Pollux from Harry Partch) in the medium of moving bodies. 

This work offered that, just as every work in this program had. The music is in the movement, and vice versa. With eyes and ears fully open, we can relish in just how special that inextricable union can be. Brava to Mark Morris Dance Group for helping us do that with their inaugural appearance on the Joyce stage – and many more! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top