Mark of quality

Mark Morris Dance Group premieres embody creative elegance
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Empire Garden

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DANCE REVIEW The Mark Morris Dance Group's regular visits to the Bay Area have assured it a faithful and knowledgeable audience. Yet rarely has it received the kind of enthusiastic applause that greeted its West Coast premieres of Visitation and Empire Garden, and the magisterial V (2001), at Cal Performances. Morris is that rarest of contemporary artists — a great entertainer and a great humanist.

In the history of Western art, the Visitation refers to paintings that depict the pregnant virgin meeting her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. They illustrate a tender relationship between two mothers-to-be. It's doubtful Morris had this kind of religious iconography in mind when he set his lovely Visitation to Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 in C, although the work did suggest the intimacy of old friends. The outstretched hand became the central gesture for convivial meetings and partings that were as public and private as the ongoing "conversation" between the piano and the cello. You found yourself looking in on an elegant salon that — after all, this is Mark Morris — was also a playground of rabbits hopping and toy soldiers stomping. Maile Okamura was the butterfly looking for a place to light.

The other new work, Empire Garden, supposedly took its name from a Chinese restaurant; it's a much darker affair. I can't pretend to have penetrated Charles Ives' gnarly Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, best known for threading Americana music into its central scherzo section. Morris responded by densely layering kaleidoscopically-changing images that tumbled on top of each other. He packed a pulsating stage space with prayer meetings, hunting scenes, ballroom couples in rigor mortis, robotic escorts, human pyramids, and pontificating leaders. But he also gave his dancers tiny wistful gestures for the hands or a foot. The whole Brueghelian canvas had a slightly deranged energy from which emerged a rather foreboding dance of death finale. Julie Worden, magnificent in the grandeur with which she enlivened her singular role, stood out from an ensemble that has never looked better.

V, to Schumann's Quintet for Piano and Strings, resonated with particular poignancy at its local premier in October 2001, three weeks after 9/11. That reference — which Morris always resisted — has faded. What remains is a dance that is powered by the rigors of formal design. The dancers were divided into two groups of seven, dressed in either off-white pants or blue skirts (by Martin Pakledinaz). The choreography stuck closely to the music — sometimes almost mockingly so — and much of it had a swingy pliancy to it. Large arm gestures also suggested a ceremonial quality. Somewhat mysteriously, a duet called up an unsustained echo from the wings.

But V's most remarkable section starts in the central Largo, for which Morris uses the simplest of human movements. One group walks, the other crawls, out of the wings. The drama happens when the vertical and horizontal lines intersect — basic geometry. The piece has two endings: an orgy of embracing, and a V-shaped military phalanx moving downstage. Take your pick.

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