Mark Morris weaves his dances and music like a fine tapestry

Dance Review

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Dance, by nature, is communal. It's most often humane. It must stand on its own, yet often engage with the forces of art around it. And while many come to the studio, few become a Chosen One like Mark Morris, who created the final installment on the Pittsburgh Dance Council's season Saturday night.

Once the Bad Boy of modern dance with cascades of dark cherubic ringlets, he has grown up to be an irreverently charming, albeit graying choreographer nearing his sixties who still doesn't pull any punches, both when he speaks or when he makes dances.

The program at the Byham Theater, though, was his loveliest among a handful of local appearances over the years. The ties to the music were never more apparent, yet the artists were independently wonderful -- call it a blended family of 20 dancers (14 of whom performed) and 8 musicians.

While the pieces were all connected by ethnic traits (the dancers linked arm to arm in a line), balletic steps like softly sprung sissonnes and leaps and modern movement, where the dance was still grounded after all these years, overall it remained inexorably Morris, billowing over the stage and poetic to the last note.

`The program began with "The Muir," Beethoven's arrangement of nine Irish and Scottish folk songs for three couples. They were complimented by six vocalists and musicians, awkwardly stuffed into a corner in front of the stage. So the words would have been clearer if the vocalists could have projected to the front, although Mr. Morris happily provided the lyrics in the program booklet for those who wanted to revisit.

That might be a good idea, because he occasionally uses the words to inspire, such as a woman (and later a man) tapping the other ankle like the trembling of the heart (or like Odette in "Swan Lake).

The men wore heather gray and the women had latticed dresses of red, blue and green, and, yes, they could easily have been walking, even crawling in the fresh air of the fields.

There were also other ballet references -- Mr. Morris knows his dance like he knows his music -- such George Balanchine's "Apollo," with three women linking up to one man, and the balletic way the women were carried over hill and vale in arabesque.

But you didn't have to know that. Mr. Morris' work is easily appreciated for the dance that it is. "Petrichor" brought us an ensemble of eight women in a piece set to Villa-Lobos' String Quartet No. 2, where the string quartet was placed in the opposite corner.

The title comes from the pleasant smell that can accompany the first rain after a long dry spell. So the women were clad in short diaphanous dresses, suitably grays and pinks and purples, which gave a visually arresting scene of them wafting about the stage.

It came with the rolling arpeggios and occasionally jazzy feel of the score. But it was the final movement, capturing both the abandon of the '20's and the quick footwork of ballroom duets, that gave off its own aromatic pleasures.

The finale, titled simply and most effectively "Festival Dance," was set to Hummel's Piano Trio No. 5. Set for a dozen dancers who could have been more challenged on the Benedum stage, it looked rather confined at the Byham.

You had to love the opening -- a man hugging a woman, then seeming to bounce her like a ball. It set off a playful exchange, with tippy-toe runs and a waltz where the dance echoed an embellishment in the music. The music continued to clear a path for joyful line patterns, ending in that same opening pose.

But that's what a Morris dance does -- just gives the music a hug.

theater

Former PG critic Jane Vranish: jvranish1@comcast.net. She blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.


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