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Friday, June 14, 2013

Two Dance Companies Feel the Heat of Spring

Posted By on Fri, Jun 14, 2013 at 4:55 PM

Photo of Mark Morris Dance Group in Spring Spring Spring by Peg Skorpinski
  • Photo of Mark Morris Dance Group in Spring Spring Spring by Peg Skorpinski

Mark Morris Dance Group and LEVYdance both reveal the distinct physicality of their namesake choreographers. Mark Morris's works are linear, balletic without the fluidity of ballet, emphasize the breadth of second position. At first glance, they are simple, flat, marionettish, occasionally hokey or silly, committed to the shape of the dance more than the shape of the dancer.

In contrast, Benjamin Levy's works are architectural, highlight speed without sharp edges, exhibit falls that neither seem thrown nor caught. Everything is in a state of suspension and inversion: Hands do what feet should do and and so on. The work is unfailingly glamorous and cool, danced by his model-beautiful company.

Mark Morris Dance Group presented a mixed bill at Hertz Hall June 12-13 as part of the Ojai North! Music Festival. With the American String Quartet downstage left, they danced Mosaic and United, a 1993 piece for five dancers set to string quartets 3 (Mosaic) and 4 (United) by Henry Cowell. Wearing silk pajamas designed by Isaac Mizrahi and backed by the dissonant score, the dancers made diacritical marks with their bodies: the breve, the circumflex, the cedilla. On dancers of less skill the dance might look childish; as it was performed, even a run executed along the edges of the oblong stage to the simultaneous exit at its four corners was calculated to seem perfectly natural.

Photo by Peg Skorpinski
  • Photo by Peg Skorpinski

With jazz trio The Bad Plus downstage right, they danced Spring, Spring, Spring to an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a work as ubiquitous its centennial year as the annual eruption of Nutcrackers (including Morris's campy, much adored The Hard Nut). The piece began with the eerie opening strains of the Rite played in pitch darkness with the muddy sound of a blind pianist fumbling for the keys for several minutes. The lights came up on the full company in bright regalia, the women in ombre pastel satin tea length gowns, the men shirtless in colored stretch jeans, everyone crowned with a little garland of greenery.

Rejecting the typical narrative of the virgin sacrificed to an uncompromising earth, Morris's Spring features without comment the full fruiting body of a pregnant dancer among the boys and girls. The dresses whirl and the audience strains for the glimpse of skin that would corroborate its veracity. The weight and unsteadiness of the body in question confirms its condition; the O of the arms in first position, transposed over and over throughout the piece, held perpendicular to the stage when women hinge over the backs of crouching men, woven over the stage when dancers spin one by one in ecstatic, wobbling trajectories, celebrate the swell of fecundity.

Every empire-waisted dress starts looking like it might be hiding something, as the men crawl across the stage like ploughs or beasts of burden pushed like hoovers by the women. Though this was a world premiere, the work bore several familiar Morris motifs: snazzy little arm swings, the absurd juxtaposition of powerful men made to move directly from breathtaking sauts de basque into a game of ring a ring o' roses, everyone at some point arranged in a cheer-squad formation.

Photo of LEVYdance by Natalia Perez
  • Photo of LEVYdance by Natalia Perez

LEVYdance refuses the convention of the proscenium once more in its 10th Anniversary Spring Season at Home June 13-16. In the alley outside its Heron Street studio, the company presented four works from its first three years, reconceived for a stage with audiences seated on two sides and reclining in the middle. In pOrtal, billed as the piece that launched the company in 2002, bodies are turned into structures that support and collapse along the precariously narrow runways of the stage.

Paul Vickers's entrance stuns with its stillness and stability before he moves with the swiftness and plasticity of a martial artist. Vickers and Scott Marlowe dance a duet in which each threatens to dive off the stage but instead finds himself resting on the perch of a knee, calf, or foot of the other: not lifts but balances achieved on some crest or pivot of another's body. The four dancers twine into a Celtic knot, then fall apart, an image that recurs in the closing number.

In a solo danced by Marlowe, if this small space, smallest shudders of the body intensify until the body seems a flame. In the yellow light, the valley of the throat rolls as he swallows. The piece explores vibration on a small scale: the shiver, the fever of delirium, the tremor of uncertainty, the undulation of Elvis riding a mechanical bull. Holding Pattern from 2004 features aggressive partnering, as if to lift were to demand something more than mass. In a scene reminiscent of Sartre's Huis Clos, three dancers give, receive, and impose upon each other in a tableau of the shame of dependence.

Photo by Natalia Perez
  • Photo by Natalia Perez

To close the evening, That Four Letter Word was the most narrative of the pieces, with couples entering hand in hand and proceeding to entertain every possible conformation of affairs in twos and threes, with passion in the thrust of a hand through the negative space of the legs, embraces that are near misses, touches that simultaneously repel and smolder, and erotically comical inflation and deflation of symbolic red balloons. The piece ends with a swinging cha-cha, whose beats in twos and threes echoes the relationships that occasionally left one out, the steely Sarah Dionne Woods, center stage as the lights went down.

Ojai North! A Festival of Music and Dance continues through June 15 at UC Berkeley; visit for details and tickets.

LEVYdance presents 10th Anniversary Spring Season at Home June 13-16 at 8:30 on Heron and 8th, S.F. Tickets are $20-$30; visit

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