Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Masters at Work - Voloshky/Morris at Bryn Mawr

I spent two afternoons in the darkened theater at Bryn Mawr considering what the difference is between a competent or even great artist and a brilliant one and why some traditional folkloric music and dance is moving to me on a level more primal than anything the post-moderns could ever serve up. Being the daughter of a square and folk dance caller who was thrown into the maelstrom of dancing grownups from a very young age certainly has a lot to do with it. But I don't think you need that kind of  connection to feel this dancing in the soul-stirring way that I do.  

In creating a new dance for Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, Mark Morris looked very closely at the regional dances the group performed for him. He absorbed their movement language, making use of distinctive moves. But more importantly, their ethos – of a community of dancers, portraying moments in the lives of their village, their ‘tribe’—is one Morris has been incorporating in his own dances all along. He has credited his early Balkan dancing as being formative, and not only for the experience of repeating circles and lines and rhythmic patterns. The unity of the group, their social exuberance, factored strongly. 

Our age can be one of virtual more than physical connection.  So to see dancers and musicians cooperate so fully in representing a vision of human togetherness that is at once geographically specific and  completely recognizable is a reminder of where we came from; the ur-past we share. Hearts are full; hearts are broken. Young men display their prowess, and women theirs—fiddling as if on fire, and singing in tones that will pierce any reserve. There are reasons to shout and stamp and swirl and run. It’s the full catastrophe of human experience in dance, instrumental music and song. 

The spatial patterns and tricky steps in the traditional works are something Morris understands and makes full use of. But where the Ukrainian dances are comparatively clean and direct, his new Carnival, set to Saint-Saens, has rounded edges and more sly humor. His themes recur in a satisfying way. A full lyricism that sustains itself by breathing the music for sustenance is his hallmark. And with the Ukrainians, it reaches full flowering in a new way.  

Watching Morris rehearse his dance with both dancers and musicians is to see an artist move a performance from wonderful to sublime. He teases out voices, he insists on exact angles and changes arcs of emphasis. It’s a god-in-the-details thing, and the details he drives for, like dancers adding one movement beat on to the very end of a dance after the musicians finish, are the flourishes and distinctions that make the whole gleam. 

The two halves of this show, one traditional but choreographed by a now-89 year old Ukrainian master, Anatoly Kryvochyzha, and one choreographed by what Alastair Macaulay called one of the “foremost living choreographers” in last Sunday’s New York Times act as a conversation across geography and time. For Voloshky to dance something contemporary requires Morris to look to the past. It offers us a chance hear the echo of their and our histories in the ever-so-ecstatic present.

Show info here.