The Muir

“The Muir”. Credit: Richard Termine.

Dance can be funny and whimsical, idiosyncratic and beautiful — characteristics overlooked or under-appreciated by today’s audiences, particularly by college students like myself. But dance and music go hand in hand and, in an environment like ours, where “dance” immediately evokes images of warehouse raves and cramped nightclubs, the latter art form — having maintained a stronger universality — may very well be contemporary dance’s savior.

The idea of dance as a whimsical art form, as well as the complementary nature of music and dance are ever-present in Mark Morris’s work, recently performed at Zellerbach Hall.

Going into Program A of Mark Morris Dance Group’s annual residency at Cal Performances the weekend of September 25-28, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know the first thing about modern dance, but, as it turns out, I didn’t need to. For a classical music fan, the musical pairings that night made the performance beautiful. Morris’s choreography was set to a carefully-curated medley of short musical pieces, some performed live, to invoke a particular mood or convey a specific whimsy. The pieces ranged from Irish folk arrangements by Beethoven to comedic, spoken word performed over harmonium backgrounds to the experimental piano of Henry Cowell.

Musical high points included the aforementioned folk songs performed by a small chamber group, as well as what was either a series of short “songs” or one long-form absurdist piece written by comic poet, Ivor Cutler.

The show began with The Muir, a short dance number set to an oddly whimsical rendition of an old Beethoven piece, which was a collection of traditional Scottish folk song arrangements. The lyrics were sung in a mix of authentic Old English and renaissance fair Old English; they were happy in a way that mixed carefree musicality with portrayals of somber rural life.

A Wooden Tree followed, featuring the poetry of English poet Ivor Cutler. Cutler’s piece added an idiotic, nearly vulgar humor in the best way possible; in the recording, the poet dryly recited hilarious “lyrics” ironically over a harmonium accompaniment. Here, the lyrics and instrumentation combined to create an almost vaudevillian treatment of modern dance and music.

Another musical highlight of the night was a live performance of Henry Cowell’s “Suite for Violin and Piano” to accompany the third dance, titled Jenn and Spencer. The music was beautifully melancholic in a contemporary classical style; conveying sadness in a profound and distilled way. Cowell’s piece features all the hallmarks of modern Western art music, including polyrhythmic performance, a healthy dose of dissonance, and an interesting compositional style. However, it was an interesting choice that didn’t share in the whimsy and fun of the rest of the music and performance. (Whether this was a good amount of contrast or thematically polarizing is subject to the viewer).

Nonetheless, the dance and music that evening synergized perfectly, confounding any of my previous, misguided expectations of the evening. My takeaway? Don’t pass up your next opportunity to see a contemporary dance performance — especially not a Mark Morris performance.

Article by Etan Khanal

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