The visit Mark Morris Dance Group is paying to Sadler’s Wells this week is bringing a breath of fresh air to the London dance panorama. The immense talent of the American choreographer, together with the energy and enthusiasm of his dancers and musicians, is blowing in the city like a very welcome breeze of vitality. The width and depth of the repertory of the company is shining through two different programmes. The superb Programme B, premiered on Thursday, contains four works, all new to London. Complementing the quiet and subtle Programme A with livelier and bolder pieces, it featured a stimulating range of registers.

<i>Festival Dance</i> © Stephanie Berger
Festival Dance
© Stephanie Berger

Excursions (2008), set to music by Samuel Barber, opened the bill. Exploring the feelings of curiosity, excitement and naïveté typical of children’s expeditions, this sextet is an easy-watching piece with a flavour of childhood revisited. At Sadler’s Wells, it established Morris’ naughty style, creating an atmosphere of playfulness that lasted the whole evening. 

Taking boldness a bit further, A Wooden Tree (2012) is an overtly humorous work. With a recorded score of songs and poems by Scottish singer and comedian Ivor Cutler, it is filled with witty jokes and gags. The dialogue between music and dance, central to Morris’ works, is made less subtle and more obvious here. Ranging from a direct visualization, to an oblique reference, a straight reply or an understated comment to the lyrics, the constant play between the choreography and music is exploited to amusing effect.  

In contrast with the luminosity of Wooden Tree, Jenn and Spencer (2013) is a duet that depicts a stormy relationship. The dramatic Suite for Violin and Piano by Henry Cowell possesses a tragic quality that looms over the dance. The choreography conveys the same sense of fatality, though it looks very simple in comparison. Discreet but passionate, it portrays images of unsettling intimacy, unsatisfactory approaches and convoluted feelings.  

To conclude the evening, the impressive Festival Dance (2011) demonstrated the extraordinary power of Morris’ mastery. A joyful piece, set to a piano trio by Jahann Nepomuk Hummel, it proposes a reinterpretation of ballet conventions. Close to the structure of the classical 3-act ballet, with an eventful love story leading to a festive wedding celebration, it recalls The Sleeping Beauty. It does not have a narrative line but relies entirely on well-known devices, using formations, patterns and steps that recall
canonical works.

Within this frame, Morris does not opt for a deconstructive stance but instead offers a stimulating form of reconstruction. By refining the upwards stance of ballet with a more relaxed appearance, he offers a less ethereal and more human version of beauty and harmony. In the last section of the piece, where Morris moves away from his antecedents and directly offers his own version of a nuptial celebration, he retakes the folk-inspired lines of dancers from his celebrated L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988). The sense of fraternity they convey provides Morris’ festival dance with a truly distinctive look.