Doing a dance to a part of Handel’s “Water Music” and simply titling it “Water” is exactly the kind of joke you’d expect from Mark Morris. The same goes for the staging of this work in Brooklyn Bridge Park with New York Harbor as a backdrop, putting “Water” directly against the water.
The title helps set the tone: a bit cheeky in its unfussy outspokenness. And despite the downsides of the venue – a concrete promenade for a stage, which required dancers to protect their usually bare feet with sneakers, and recorded music (a rare concession for this troupe) – this tone is part of what made the work particularly suitable for a free outdoor show.
For 45 minutes on Saturday, neighbor Mark Morris Dance Group presented high class choreography on a beautiful day to people sitting on sloping grass, passing with strollers and pets or just enjoying the sun, like the man wearing nothing other than what could be described as a fly.
“Water”, which ended the program, is short, about 10 minutes. The band describes a quadrilateral on the ground and the whole company travels around this perimeter, framing couples who take turns in lyrical flights through the center, one dancer often carrying another who is upside down. As different groups of dancers come and go, marking the hornpipe music with maritime movements, crumpling baroque grace with hip bumps and aerial kisses, other dancers walk past or behind. It’s a delicious, teeming world that makes you want more.
This was preceded by a play by Samuel Beckett. In 2019 Morris was invited to stage three works by Beckett for Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in Northern Ireland. On Saturday Morris’s company gave the US premiere of their production of “Quad”, a silent television play written by Beckett in 1981.
As the short title suggests, “Quad” is also organized by quadrilateral. A figure in a hooded robe runs around the perimeter and cuts the diagonal. When another hooded figure joins them – and a third and a fourth – they must duck into the center.
This swerve is as typical a Beckett twist as it is Morris. The addition and subsequent subtraction of interpreters is a game of permutations; as soon as you understand the pattern, you start to wonder when it’s going to end.
But in Beckett’s instructions, as in the original German production, the intersecting performers avoid a small square in the middle, an absurd hole. In Morris’s version, the dancers do not avoid a busy space; they avoid a collision. It is a social act, a civil choreography.
And where, in the original production, the hooded figures rushed through their ritual, like rats in a maze, Morris’s performers walk to a beat provided by other members of the group, who beat drums, pots and a propane tank. Without deviating from the metronomic rhythm, the deviation puts a little jump between steps, a lift that feels like a higher note. Morris turns Beckett’s dark slapstick into a kind of folk dance.
There is an aspect of folk dancing in most of the activities of this company. This includes the opening of this program, which is tuned to some of Mendelssohn’s “songs without words” and is, of course, called simply “Words”.
For “Words” the music was live, played on the keyboard by the excellent Colin Fowler. Her use of space – dancers appearing for a moment at the edge of the dance area – marks the 2014 work as clearly intended for the proscenium stage. Here, the only wings were those of the gulls.
A stage is where these dancers belong, and hopefully they can return there soon. But in Brooklyn Bridge Park, where some of their gun gestures inadvertently mirrored Lady Liberty’s pose behind them, they weren’t out of place at all.
The program will be repeated at the Queens Botanical Garden on October 3.