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Mark Morris’s Exuberant Pageant Comes to Boston Morris Evolves from Dancer to Choreographer

By Katherine S. Ryan

Mark Morris Dance Group

Shubert Theater

March 11, 7:30 p.m.; March 12-13, 8 p.m.; March 14, 3 p.m.

Mark Morris doesn’t mind wearing a skirt one bit. He appears a bit like a bloated kitchen maid in his get-up in “Serenade,” but he pulls it off with complete charm. Morris, the founder and namesake of the dance group, is a true lover of dancing, and though he recognizes that a 47-year-old dancer may lack the flexibility of some of the younger members, he wouldn’t dare give it up. His dance is part physical comedy and part ballet, and he finishes to the hoots of appreciation from a graying audience that would scarcely be anticipated to hoot.

But his true skill lies these days in his choreography. Two pieces for 12 or more dancers were the prizes of the night. The first, titled “All Fours,” is a dance of blunt colors. The backdrop screen begins lit entirely in red. Then it skips to orange. Then black. The dancers, eight wearing black costumes, four in white skivvies -- group alternately, pausing in poses where their arms are held to the sky in prayer (or were those pretend guns?). As the music of BÉla BartÓk evolves from jerky to frantic, the movements change, too. In one movement the women jump around like kangaroos, and, in the next, seven people swing their arms in unison while the eighth is off, but just barely. Now, playing more games with the lighting, changing it yet again, Morris reveals that this outcast’s costume is not so much black, like the others, but brown. As the distinctions in the costumes become apparent, the lighting begins to become less severe, too. No longer is the screen lit in just orange or red, but it is a fusion of both colors. Now all twelve dancers emerge together, in a line moving toward the audience. The dancers in dark costumes shoot off one-by-one to a new line going the other way across the stage, leaving those in light costumes in the center. One of these women in white stands on her partner’s thighs, as though sailing out away from him, yet is held firmly back at the wrists. All pause; the music stops; the lights crash out.

In the second ensemble piece, color still plays strong, but now there are many colors -- ruby, emerald, magenta. The dancers begin dispersed evenly across the stage. This dance is all arms, in one improper rotation after another -- hold, turn, reflect, hold, turn, flip. The title of this piece is “Grand Duo,” and once the dancers finally break into step, it involves one unique pairing after another. Some jump. Some scamper. Some stretch their entire sartorius muscles. All point their two first fingers upwards and seem to try to caress the sky, slowly. In the last movement of the piece, the costumes have suddenly become pastel, and Morris has placed everyone in a seated circle where they cannot take a step, but again do not lack movement -- fourteen heads twist, shake, or bounce; bodies splayed across the ground twist in uniform like ribbon snakes. This circle reminds me of campfires or 12-step program members in conversation, but mostly I am reminded of Morris’s capacity to bring dance to any position.

This show was an excellent and highly accessible introduction to Morris’s dance group, with a lively program sure to appeal to any overworked MIT student. Unfortunately, this review comes after Mark Morris’s stay in Boston has ended, but the rest of the Wang Center/ FleetBoston Celebrity Series involving other modern dance groups of international renown also promises to be invigorating -- Alvin Ailey’s Dance Theater will be here April 13-18, and Paul Taylor’s group appears May 21-23.