Mark Morris Dance Group Debuts ‘Water’ in Its Element

To make a dance to some of Handel’s “Water Music” and title it simply “Water” is just the kind of joke you would expect from Mark Morris. So is staging that work in Brooklyn Bridge Park with New York Harbor as the backdrop, putting “Water” right up against the water.

The title helps set the tone: a little impudent in its unfussy plain-spokenness. And despite the downsides of the location — a concrete promenade for a stage, which forced the dancers to protect their usually bare feet with sneakers, and recorded music (a rare concession for this troupe) — that tone is part of what made the work particularly suited for a free, outdoor show.

From left, Matthew McLaughlin and Laurel Lynch in “Water.”Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

For 45 minutes on Saturday, the neighborly Mark Morris Dance Group presented high-class choreography on a lovely day to people who sat on the sloping grass, passed by with strollers and pets or simply soaked up the sun, like the man wearing nothing but what could be described as a codpiece.

“Water,” which closed the program, is short, about 10 minutes long. Tape outlines a quadrangle on the floor and the full company walks that perimeter, framing couples who take turns in lyric flights through the center, one dancer often carrying another who is upside down. As different groupings of dancers come and go, marking the hornpipe music with some maritime motions, rumpling Baroque grace with hip bumps and air kisses, other dancers pass in front or behind. It’s a delightful, teeming world that leaves you wanting more.

The company performing on Saturday afternoon.Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

This was preceded by a Samuel Beckett play. In 2019, Morris was invited to stage three Beckett works for Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in Northern Ireland. On Saturday, Morris’s company offered the United States premiere of his staging of “Quad,” a wordless television play that Beckett wrote in 1981.

As its one-word title indicates, “Quad” is also organized by quadrangle. A figure in a hooded robe stalks the perimeter and cuts across the diagonal. When another hooded figure joins in — and a third and a fourth — they have to dodge one another in the center.

That swerve is a twist as typical of Beckett as it is of Morris. The addition and later subtraction of performers is a playing out of permutations; as soon as you figure out the pattern, you start wondering when it’s going to end.

But in Beckett’s instructions, as in the original German production, the crossing performers avoid a small square area in the middle, an absurdist hole. In Morris’s version, the dancers don’t avoid a charged space; they sidestep a collision. It’s a social act, civil choreography.

Samuel Beckett’s “Quad,” with  staging by Mr. Morris.Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

And where in the original production the cowled figures scuttled through their ritual quickly, like rats in a maze, Morris’s performers walk on a beat provided by other members of the group, who bang drums, pans and a propane tank. Without diverging from the metronomic pacing, the swerve puts a little skip in between steps, a lift that’s like a higher note. Morris turns Beckett’s dark slapstick into a kind of folk dance.

There’s an aspect of folk dance in most of what this company does. That includes the opener of this program, which is set to some of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” and is titled, of course, just “Words.”

For “Words,” the music was live, played on keyboard by the ever-excellent Colin Fowler. Its use of space — dancers appearing for just a moment on the edge of the dancing area — marks the 2014 work as clearly one conceived for the proscenium stage. Here, the only wings were those of gulls.

A stage is where these dancers belong, and here’s hoping they can return inside soon. But at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where some of their high-armed gestures inadvertently mirrored Lady Liberty’s pose behind them, they weren’t at all out of place.

The program will be repeated at Queens Botanical Garden on Oct. 3.

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