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Mark Morris & Yo-Yo Ma

A landmark artistic collaboration

By Shao-Fei Moy and Annie Choi

In a star-studded performance, Yo-Yo Ma joined his musical talents with the dynamics of Mark Morris, acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Also gracing the stage in a guest appearance, Mikhail Baryshnikov performed beautifully in the world premiere of The Argument. Costumes by renowned fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and classical pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann completed this landmark artistic collaboration.

With intense silence from the audience, the curtains rose for the opening piece, Falling Down Stairs (1997), and Yo-Yo Ma sat alone with his cello at the side of the stage with a single white light shining from above. The theme was simplicity -- a dimly lit set of seven wooden steps supporting nine dancers adorned with costumes of solid, subdued colors designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Ma began playing an emotional Bach’s Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello, and with the powerful presence of the performers, the musician was no longer playing a solo. The dancers created a dialogue with the music’s dynamics -- complimenting faster tempos with jarring positions and grandarm and hand movements, and slower melodies with fluid motions. Typical of Mark Morris, the dance was unique in style and brazen in character. The piece ended boldly with a dancer smoothly diving from the top step into the arms of her colleagues.

In its world premiere, The Argument featured the dancing of long time acquaintances, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris. Set to Schumann’s FÜnf StÜcke im Volkston (“Five Pieces in Folk Style”), Yo-Yo Ma was accompanied by Ethan Iverson on piano to establish the mood for an outstanding performance. The Argument portrayed the nature of confrontations between couples. With no special stage settings, attention was placed on the dancers' movements which revealed an intriguing story. The act started with Baryshnikov pursuing a disgruntled, cold female counterpart. As he tries to confront her, she ignores him, but because of his persistence, she eventually acquiesces. Still discontent, she looks to gain the auspices of another man, Yo-Yo Ma. Playing feverishly, the cellist reacted to her coy approaches with a smile, and the audience resounded in laughter. The two dancers argued back and forth and alternated between playing the aggressive and vulnerable role, but eventually reconciled their feelings. By using different emotions and exchanges, the choreographer depicts the distinct behaviors between different couples to reach reconciliation. He heightened the accessibility of the theme by using slacks, dress shirts, and simple dresses as costumes. The Argument possessed the most communicative artistic display with its powerful use of drama, aggression and comedy.

The final act of the evening, Rhymes With Silver, featured Yo-Yo Ma with an ensemble of strings and percussion. Lou Harrison was commissioned to write the score, and the result was a piece laden with strong percussion instruments, giving it an almost tribal feel. Following such an accessible piece, Rhymes With Silver presented more abstract themes and captivated the audience with music straying from the classical pieces used in the show. The piece showcased Mark Morris’ creative talents and his uncanny ability to explore beyond the boundaries of modern dance.

The Mark Morris Dance Group will continue touring until late June, visiting stages in Berkeley, Brooklyn and Hartford. Mikhail Baryshnikov will only be appearing until mid-April.