Mark Morris is known for the musicality of his dances, a simple statement that doesn’t nearly convey how richly rewarding they are. Certainly the three pieces that his Mark Morris Dance Group performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night were beautiful examples of choreographic craftsmanship that illuminated their classical music scores. But they were also much more — so inspired by and united with their source that they made dance and music much more than the sum of their parts. As with the best works of George Balanchine, you could watch Morris’ dances repeatedly and still find something new in each viewing.
Much of the pleasure comes from the idiosyncratic humanity of each piece. This is partly due to the 18 wonderful dancers, who always seemed warmly personable, even while executing the most exactingly precise steps and patterns. But the depth of Morris’ dances comes as much from the way he unites the quirky (even silly), the yearning and the strange into his beautifully constructed frameworks, revealing the soul underneath.
The first, Festival Dance, which premiered earlier this year as part of the company’s 30th anniversary celebrations, was unabashedly joyful. Set to the vertiginously intricate Piano Trio No. 5 by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (a virtuoso pianist and student of Mozart), divided into a waltz, march and polka, Festival Dance was — on many levels — about dancing and celebrating. (As with all the company’s performances, the music throughout was played by the MMDG’s five member music ensemble of piano and strings, whose verve and feeling give a rare vitality to the dancers and the choreography).
Festival starts with Rita Donahue and Aaron Loux embracing upstage, the first of many couples careening through Festival. Wearing khaki pants, t-shirts and full-skirted dresses by Martin Pakledinaz (who did the costumes for all the dances), the dancers prance and galumph, arch and bounce, kick and gesture in excited flurries. They join in swirling circles and parading pairs that recall Morris’ roots in folk dancing. The dancing, whether a hiccupping foot or a rushing line, so exactly mirrored the music that it often made you laugh with delight, building from simply funny to an exuberant energy, which fused with that of the music. Festival ended as it began, with Donahue and Loux spun off from a kaleidoscope of dancers to embrace upstage again, as if the dance left them overwhelmed — or ready to begin again.
By contrast, All Fours, to the startlingly modern-sounding, often astringent Bela Bartok String Quartet No. 4, was dark and doubtful. It was indeed structured in fours, with eight dancers in sleek black and four in diaphanous white; two powerful duets, for Loux and Dallas McMurray, and Donahue and Michelle Yard, were briefly joined by two other dancers to keep the pattern. Nicole Pearce’s dramatic lighting flashed from red to black to white. Here the idiosyncrasies were jittery, tense — arms slashing, torsos plunging; All Fours was filled with a sense of yearning, uncertain isolation.
The decade-old V was also celebratory, but with an odder and more profound kind of joy. Set to Schumann’s dense and luminous Quintet in E Flat for Piano and Strings, V had a dreamy strangeness. The contrasting costumes, seven dancers in bright blue smocks and briefs, seven in pale green pants and tops, emphasized the dance’s patterns (again reflecting the title), with septets of dancers making flying v’s, or mixed color trios forming triangular shapes. Strange moments, such as dancers popping into unexpected lifts, or crawling
smoothly across the stage, seemed beautifully right for the music, merging seamlessly with intricately moving circles and cascading lines of dancers. The energy of V kept building with the music, radiant, powerful, and wonderfully mysterious.