- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

The Mark Morris Dance Group, small in scale and large in impact, was back at the Kennedy Center Thursday through Saturday, trailing clouds of glory in “Mozart Dances.”

Much of that glory emanated from Mozart’s music, performed by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Live music is a must for Mr. Morris, a brave and admirable move in these parlous times, when even big-budget ballet companies are resorting to recordings.

Mr. Morris’ company had not been seen at the Kennedy Center for 10 years, but it was memorable back then for two events: his own wild performance of the dual female roles of Dido and the Sorceress in “Dido and Aeneas” and his masterpiece, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Since then, the Morris dancers have performed at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Hopefully the sold-out Kennedy Center engagement will lead to an early return to Washington.

“Mozart Dances” often has the bold simplicity of poster art: A striking pose (dancers with hands on the back of their necks, elbows jutting skyward like an inverted W) is repeated again and again throughout the performance, sometimes with only one dancer, sometimes with the entire group, sometimes dominating the stage and at other times a fleeting throwaway moment. The audience is kept alert and involved, comfortable with this easy display of form.

Other motifs surface repeatedly: a man suddenly turning around as if catching a glimpse of someone; an arm curving sharply over a dancer’s head; women lying on the floor with arms strangely akimbo. (That gave me the ominous feeling of wounded birds caught in an oil spill.)

With these strong anchoring moments, “Mozart Dances” is free to create atmosphere and dredge up what William Wordsworth called “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Mr. Morris is fascinating as an artist, a choreographer and in conversation; he can be brusque and no-nonsense, but he is a humanist through and through. One of his unique strengths comes from his early involvement with folk dancing. Drawing on its sense of shared humanity has been a lodestar for some of his most creative achievements.

Mr. Morris has always broken with the stereotype of strong men, yielding women. The first dance, “Eleven,” named for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11, opens with a solo by Lauren Grant, a small, heroic woman who dances big. Mr. Morris challenges stereotypes here without making a big deal of it.

The women in “Eleven” are strong and Amazonian, while the men in the following “Double” - to Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos (played by Ursula Oppens and Amy Briggs) - are grave and tender. It is in this section that the program rises to the level of the rarefied eloquence of Mr. Morris’ “L’Allegro.”

“Double” opens with Joe Bowie dancing variations on the curved-arm theme followed by a mesmerizing slow movement: A group of six men intertwine in a miraculous unfolding of continuous movement; a remarkable young dancer, Noah Vinson, appears in the center of the group; his moving solo lies at the heart of this haunting section.

The company’s dancers are wonderful, strong, natural and skilled. The other elements of “Mozart Dances” made a strong contribution: Howard Hodgkin’s swirling scenic designs, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Jane Glover’s conducting of Mozart.

★★★½

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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