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Mark Morris Dance Group

Sydney Opera House and Etihad Airway present, MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP, in The Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) performed at the Sydney Opera House bringing PACIFIC (1995), A WOODEN TREE (2012), WHELM (April, 2015) and FESTIVAL DANCE (2011) – a program covering some twenty years of his thirty-year output. This presentation felt very much a touring production with just the dancers in costume, with some lighting states, backed by a cyclorama to ‘colour’ the works – no Set Design at all (there was a lack of care in the presentation, as well, as from where I was sitting in the stalls, I could see into the wings the dancers moving about after exiting the stage and preparing for re-entry – most distracting). The aesthetic emphasis, then, was clearly on the dance and the dancers – although, the MMDG Music Ensemble, under the Music Director, Colin Fowler, performed live for three of the four pieces, and was, for me, the best part of the evening.

We are told in an article by Valerie Lawson, in the (free) program of the genius and brilliance of the Choreographer, quoting The West Australian: “Morris’s status is nothing short of legendary”; The London Evening Standard: “Morris’s genius is his musicality. His choreography is not just rooted in music, but embedded in it, inseparable from it”; The New York Times: “The most life-enhancing musical choreographer alive.” The Independent: “Everything they do is human and marvelous.” And, certainly, his CV is startling in its breadth of coverage (and hyperbole).

Every artist creates out of the environment s/he is in. The work is made up partly from their own passion-visions, inspiration, and partly from a conscious (unconscious) interaction, re-action, to the work of the artists that surrounds them. There is an on-going conversation between artists in the zeitgeist that they live in. So, Mr Morris’s work, especially in the USA, may have impact, a contrast, an affirmation of what is going on around him. When living and working in the United States I saw, often, the work of Mr Morris, with the San Francisco Ballet, but usually, it was one work inclusive with other choreographer’s offers. Mr Morris’s dance, contextually, was a light-hearted divertissement, and I remember, reasonably bearable. However, having these four works together, with no contrasting choreographic voices, simply, underlines the shallow range and depth of his consistent output, particularly, when his company of dancers, on this occasion, seemed so ‘relaxed’ about the concentration demanded for the works – a remarkable contrast to the regular San Francisco Ballet dancers, I saw giving his choreography, I can assure you.

With the MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP landing here in Sydney this work seemed to be unusually out-of-touch with what we have been used to seeing, in the realm of international contemporary dance, and of what makes an outstanding Dance Company (Group), just, to instance, for arguments sake, the work of the NEDERLANDS DANCE THEATRE, FABULOUS BEAST DANCE THEATRE, DV8, MAU and our own brilliant AUSTRALIAN DANCE THEATRE (ADT). Heck, The SYDNEY DANCE COMPANY (SDC) and even BANGARRA look truly fabulous when compared to this evening’s work. From those companies, form, content and skill they have! Who knew? (We do.) The four works shown in this program by the Mark Morris Dance Group, could not have been more disappointing in every way. Mr Morris claims, in the above publicity video, the program as ” a very generously varied program.” If only. One went back into the theatre after the interval in expectation of such a promise, otherwise one might have quite easily have gone home and written off the investment in the evening, time and money-wise, as an educative loss.

These four works had all the homey-hokey feel of the local barn dance group with pretensions to modern dance. The dull, out-moded PACIFIC offered very little in way of content – it just felt as if Isadora Duncan was hovering – the costumes by Martin Franklin, the only, arresting (oddly) feature to absorb. A WOODEN TREE, using the recorded music and words of Ivor Cutler – kind of Beverly Hillbilly comic – with the dancers dressed in ‘folk-dance costume’ from, it seemed, a production of Oklahoma, left us all, at interval, shocked at the paltry impact of the creativity of Mr Morris and his Group of dancers.

Strangers, came up to my friends and I, and insisted on a conversation, asking point-blank: “Is this what one expected to see from modern dance work?” These strangers felt, having read all the preamble in the press advertising and program, that they were on a completely other planet of ability to appreciate the work, especially considering the hyperbole that they had digested in anticipation. From Louise Herron, the Chief Executive Officer of the Sydney Opera House:

There is no more influential choreographer of contemporary dance than Morris. … It is a privilege to present these life-affirming performances by one of the world’s great dance groups. With this long-awaited debut, the daring icon of contemporary dance finally meets the bold symbol of modern Australia.

After the interval, WHELM, a brand new work, had four dancers, dressed in ‘weirdness’ (Costume by Martin Pakledinaz), awkwardly moving around the stage with a series of modern dance gestures and partnerings that looked like a parody conjured by Mel Brooks or the Absolutely Fabulous team for one of their hilarious movie/TV-comedies. It included a lazily draped black cloth, covering what looked like the chair-props from the first half of the program, lit for effect up-stage on the left of the dance space – Set Design, was it? – the dancers seemed to find it a difficult obstacle to avoid. This work was underwhelming and ersatz contemporary dance in every one of its minutes on view. Lastly, with FESTIVAL DANCE, we were given an extended folk dance routine – after the first duet it had nothing of interest to give. At least those two dancers looked as if they could dance and wanted to – the first that I had noticed in the program. And, if all that we are being given by Mr Morris with this program is form with no content, then let us see competence in the dancing of the form – it was not much sighted on the Joan Sutherland stage on our night – lots of enthusiasms, replete with many, many ‘approximations’ of dance-movement. Go on, tell me it is the house style, it is a deliberate ‘charm’. I was flabbergasted, the dancers had no apparent vital energy, no finish, no joy and worst of all, no need to share with the audience. We were simply asked to watch, not share. Dull. Dull. DULL.

To quote Mr Morris in the idolatrous program notes from Ms Lawson:

I don’t like most dance concerts I see. Most of them are very boring. They always seem to be the same thing. … If I don’t like a dance, I’ll say so.

When asked about his dance philosophy he replied:

I make it and you watch it. End of philosophy.

As for posterity, Morris, 59, jokes that when he dies he wants to be preserved in a speed bump:

Everyone will be driving along the interstate at 75 miles an hour and then there’ll be a warning sign for the Mark Morris Memorial Speed Bump, and they’ll have to slow down, to like, zero. When I die I want to be an irritation not a religion.”

Well, Mr Morris, I didn’t like your dance and I’m saying so. And as my friends and I hold our tickets costing $99.00 each (with the Sydney Opera House $5.00 tax added, to cost us $103), I look forward to that speed bump. You will never be a religion, a prophet of mine, but are, definitely, an irritation – in life, in Sydney, you have achieved your posthumous wish, already.

P.S. With the cancellation of the 50th Anniversary Gala of the AUSTRALIAN DANCE THEATRE happening in Adelaide, whilst the company has just recently completed a sold-out season in Paris, one wonders why Louise Herron and the Sydney Opera House has found the time and space for the MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP, and not, similarly, the time and space for our own truly GREAT contemporary dance company, ADT. One wonders, the artistic politics of all this, doesn’t one? Or is it the pragmatism of economics that imported, toured, this company?