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Mark Morris brings light and warmth to GMU

Dancing Honeymoon, Mark Morris Dance Company (photo by Christopher Duggan)

The annual visits of Mark Morris Dance Group to the area are always welcome. The group's latest appearance at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, however, was a much-needed shot in the arm after what has been a long, long winter. The selection of four choreographies, two a decade or more in age and two premiered just last year, offered a ray of sunlight, with none of the somber qualities of some previous programs.

Late Romantic ballet was one of the great fusions of all the arts, akin to Richard Wagner's music drama. In his long career Mark Morris has stripped away almost all of that trend toward unification of the arts, using no sets, few props, and in most cases no easily recognizable narrative, at least not in the traditional sense. A Morris choreography is abstract, concentrated on movement, music (always performed, as here, by live musicians), and mood conveyed through lighting and color.

The evening opened with A Forest, premiered last May. Costumed in unisex body suits of gray and white paisley (designed by Maile Okamura), the dancers incarnated the whimsical musical gestures from Haydn's piano trio no. 44 (Hob. XV:28), performed by violinist Georgy Valtchev, cellist Michael Haas, and pianist Colin Fowler. The theme of threes -- three instruments in three movements -- is the somewhat obvious main focus, as the nine dancers are grouped into a trio of trios. Most of the movements were playful: bending knees on strong downbeats, flashing the hands upward on pizzicato notes, standing still in extended poses at sudden silences. In the enigmatic second movement, the piano's meandering bass line inspired much striding around the stage, and loud bass notes knocked dancers down to the floor. It created a joyous atmosphere of bubbly exuberance but seemed to miss a more profound statement.

The other new work, Pure Dance Items, premiered last October, was the most active and exhausting. Selections from Terry Riley's two-hour marathon string quartet Salome Dances for Peace added up to about a half-hour of near-constant movement for a group of twelve dancers, often unbalanced by the exclusion of one dancer. This began in the striking opening sequence, where one dancer is seated apart from the rest of the group, eventually joining them in all of their movements, but only with his arms, as if his legs are paralyzed. In a thrilling moment of fantasy, this dancer stood and joined the ensemble for the rest of the dance, jostling the group's order. Colorful sports jerseys and shorts for both men and women (designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman) evoked an athletic joy in movement and physical exertion, recalling soccer players or, as Miss Ionarts saw it, 60s-style surfers.

Pure Dance Items, Mark Morris Dance Company (photo by Costas)

The solo dance Serenade, premiered in 2003 here at the GMU Center for the Arts, provided a moment of calm. Lesley Garrison, costumed in an Isaac Mizrahi black and white skirt with white bow, seemed at times to mimic traits of Spanish, Indian, or Japanese dance, using props (a copper pipe, a fan, and finger cymbals) in the middle dances. Morris made this choreography for himself, making the decision to add the sound of castanets to the final movement of the piece, Lou Harrison's hypnotic Serenade for Guitar and Percussion. He was unable to ask the permission of the composer, who had died as Morris was rehearsing the new dance. Garrison may have taken over the dance now, but in a surprise move Morris joined the musicians (guitarist Robert Belinić and percussionist Stefan Schatz) on stage to play his castanet part.

Morris's participation set up the final piece, Dancing Honeymoon, for which the choreographer himself sang Ethan Iverson's transcription and arrangement of jazz standards sung by Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. A group of seven dancers, in sun-yellow costumes evoking the 1920s and 30s (designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman), mimed the mild innuendos of the songs in tableaux that might seem escapist in the style of La La Land (a "kitschfest," as Alex Ross put it) but whose innocence and elan won me over. The piece, premiered in 1998, is Morris's love letter to dance, heard in the opening words of the title song: "I hated dancing / 'til I met you: / It never found me / until I found your arms around me." Morris's singing was perhaps not great, but that was hardly the point; when he brought out the castanets again, for the song "Goodnight, Vienna," Morris seemed at one with the music, even if he was no longer dancing.

This program repeats tonight at 8 p.m. at George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Va.

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