Motion and emotion

Despite technical brilliance, Mark Morris troupe never catches fire

The Mark Morris Dance Group performs ''V,'' one of three Morris classics presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Thursday night. The Mark Morris Dance Group performs ''V,'' one of three Morris classics presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Thursday night. (robbie jack)
By Thea Singer
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2009
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Choreographer Mark Morris's dances are looking a bit less full-throated these days. What exactly was missing from the three Morris classics that Celebrity Series of Boston presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Thursday night - "Bedtime" (1992), "All Fours" (2003), and "V" (2001) - is hard to pin down: The renowned musicality was intact, with the steps and gestures and multi-layered invention springing from the score. The live music was exquisitely played and sung by the company's own ensemble, with several artists appearing courtesy of Emmanuel Music. And the technically acute dancers were bursting with brio. And yet.

Many of Morris's dances, despite the structural formalism at their core, have in the past brought a lump to my throat. It had something to do with their pristine architectural beauty juxtaposed against their utter humanness. They hit you smack in the heart. But not so Thursday night.

"Bedtime," a three-part song of a dance to Franz Schubert's "Wiegenlied," "Standchen," and "Erlkonig," premiered in the very same theater (it had a different name), in 1992.

"Wiegenlied" ("Cradle Song") opens, and closes, with three dancers lying curled on their sides at the stage apron. Thursday night, Elisa Clark, in gold, hovered over each in turn, blessing the sleeper with a lullaby, her leg swinging fore and aft, her back arcing deeply. Clark is beautiful, and her extensions go on forever. But she doesn't have the taut opposition in her limbs of, say, Ruth Davidson, who played the part in the past.

In "Standchen" ("Seranade"), a chorus of eight in blue stands out against four characters now in silhouette, now with their fingers to their lips as if to echo the repeated word "liese" ("quiet") before curving through the air and letting their hands cup another's head.

"Erlkonig" tells the tale of a young boy's abduction by the Erlking, the bogeyman of Goethe's poem of the same name. In earlier productions it has been both menacing and witty, with splayed hands waving a crown of doom over the Erlking's head, and the boy's father swooping his son high to save him, the boy's legs careening into a diamond. This time around, though, the father (Joe Bowie) and son (David Leventhal) are too close in heft for the relationship to ring true, and for the boy's vulnerability to hit home.

Rigorous in its intensity, "All Fours" takes Bela Bartok's ragged, buzzing String Quartet No. 4 and gives it a human, if not a terrifically heartfelt, face. A group of eight in black plays against couples in white and/or black - a small departure from the dance's usual white and browns as the piece's costumes were delayed in shipping from Louisville to Boston for opening night.

"All Fours" is cracked into five parts by blackouts, with brilliant backdrops - now red, now orange - setting off motifs that conjure up a seeming narrative in this most abstract landscape. Arms press together as in prayer, a hand cups an ear as if listening to murmurs, hands curl into claws in the small of the back, arms undulate and shoot straight, dancers hinge backward so far they slither into the ground.

Couples set off the groups: Craig Biesecker and Bradon McDonald join forces to spin between the jagged notes, feisty Lauren Grant is caught - like a breath - in the middle of a run. Two couples engage in a kind of bitter double date, with the men, Biesecker and McDonald, crouching as Michelle Yard and Grant sink into wide second-position plies. The essence of some kind of sacrifice wafts overhead, but never quite makes it into meaning.

"V," finally, is an exuberant celebration, beginning with two groups of seven forming, dissolving, inverting, and intermingling into Vs of their own making. To Robert Schumann's glorious Quintet in E-flat Major for piano and strings, Opus 44, the dancers come together and break apart into varying configurations. "V" is full of people hugging people and arms embracing air, windswept trios and high-spirited canons.

Yet its most substantive section is its least "dancerly" one: Dancers crawl, on all fours, across the stage, in groups, in single file, in circles, then slowly rise, and just walk. What's particularly intriguing is the nature of their transport: Their legs stretch tight and their knees never touch the ground, lending the piece, ultimately, a poignance too rare in this evening of technical excellence but alas not enough heart.


Theatre, presented by

Celebrity Series of Boston, Thursday night. Program repeats through March 22, with varying casts.

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