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From new to nostalgic, Mark Morris's dances connect

LENOX -- Mark Morris celebrated the third summer of his residency at the Tanglewood Music Center by creating a beautiful, elusive dance called ''Cargo," which the Mark Morris Dance Group premiered in Seiji Ozawa Hall Sunday night.

Set to Darius Milhaud's jazzy ''La Creation du Monde," ''Cargo" was inspired by the skewed sort of creation associated with the cargo cults of Melanesia. In some of these cults, members produce replicas of objects from the colonial cultures they envy, fear, and hate. These replicas of airplanes, radios, and the like, made from miscellaneous materials, are not quite forms without function, because they become objects of veneration in the hope that actual material goods (''cargo") will arrive.

In Morris's dance, an 8-foot bamboo pole appears, and the dancers, clad only in underwear designed by Katherine McDowell, begin to play games with it, exploring its potential uses and functions; they also discover other poles. Sometimes the games are elementary, like pickup sticks; sometimes they are more complicated, as when bearers carry the poles and dancers suspend themselves from them, or when the dancers tangle themselves around the poles in a complicated puzzle. At the end, the game proves lethal, as obsessions with material goods sometimes turn out to be. The piece is unusual for Morris because it tells a story and draws a moral. The intricate patterns, breaking apart and reforming, are sexy, strange, amusing, and ultimately horrifying.

One of the prime attractions for Morris of the Tanglewood affiliation is that the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer institute for advanced musical training can give him any live music he wants. For ''Cargo" there was a chamber orchestra of 17 in the balcony above the stage. Conductor Stefan Asbury and the players caught both the playful surface of the music and its undertow.

''Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight" is Morris's tribute to the parlor ballads of Stephen Foster; it is also a tribute to various forms of 19th-century social dance. Foster's songs are not sentimental because he believed in the words; Morris's choreography may be nostalgic, but it is not sentimental, either, because he believes that dance can create true human connections. Nine TMC vocalists sang the ballads with handsome tone, but few words came across. Michelle Johnson's soprano sounded especially lovely in ''Beautiful Dreamer."

''Mosaic and United" is Morris's response to two string quartets from the mid-'30s by the American composer Henry Cowell -- music that bridges Asia and America, ancient and modern cultures. Morris's piece is highly physical; the movements illuminate the music not by replicating its rhythms and gestures but by moving over, across, and through them. The playing by four of this summer's New Fromm Players was compelling.

The program ended with ''Lucky Charms," choreographed to Ibert's cheeky ''Divertissement." This piece is pure vaudeville, with cartwheels, glitter, and glam; a bride and groom being dragged, quite literally, to the altar; and a final image of women held triumphantly aloft, but upside down. The dancers offered pizazz, precision, and energy, and conductor Steven Jarvi led an inebriatingly bubbly performance. Morris, clad like a fan-bearing figure in a Japanese woodblock, came onstage to a roaring ovation.

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