A (too?) comfortable day of dance

Mark Morris dancers performed the world premiere of “Empire Garden’’ at Tanglewood on Wednesday. Mark Morris dancers performed the world premiere of “Empire Garden’’ at Tanglewood on Wednesday. (Hilary Scott)
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / August 8, 2009

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LENOX - Choreographer Mark Morris and his dance company returned to Tanglewood this week for his sixth residency - a visit that included, for the first time, teaching the famous summer academy’s musicians something about dance. “Not that you wanted to see that,’’ an administrator told me.

No, what one wanted to see was Wednesday night’s performance at Seiji Ozawa Hall. This included two world premieres (both commissioned in part by the Tanglewood Music Center), with the superb accompanying talent of Tanglewood Music Center fellows and two guest artists, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax. The crowd spilled high up on the lawn, no doubt because of this wonderful combination of talent.

Ozawa Hall was not designed for dance. There are no wings, so the dancers exit carefully and then scramble along the side wall. (One has to remind oneself that they are “off.’’) The stage is flat, so the best view of the dancers is from the balconies. Nevertheless, there is nothing like dance with live music, and when the performers are of the caliber they were on Wednesday, all of the senses are on high synaesthetic alert.

Morris’s dances are really improvisations on the music. They generally lack a story line and favor ensemble work (usually formal and pleasant) over expressive duos or solos. This is of a piece with the music he tends to choose: formal, elegant baroque and classical music by Vivaldi, Purcell, Mozart, maybe some Poulenc. No rain on a tin roof. No droning minimalism. Little Shostakovich. (He did use a cello sonata for 1984’s “Vestige,’’ but that was a long time ago.)

Each half started off with an older work, beginning with “A Lake’’ (1991), set to Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 2. This is an innocent peasant pastoral with dancers circling, tumbling, and parading, often in an old variant of ballet’s third position, with a single arm in the air. The music was beautifully played by a TMC string group conducted by Gergely Madaras, with Lauren Moore as the horn soloist. The second half began with “Candleflowerdance’’ (2005), set to Stravinsky’s Serenade in A for piano solo, played by Ingrid Keller.

For the two premieres, Morris chose slightly edgier music than usual: Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C, for a dance titled “Visitation,’’ and Ives’s Trio for Violin, Violincello, and Piano, for “Empire Garden.’’ (Ma and Ax were superb in the Beethoven, and joined by violinist Colin Jacobsen, they gave an equally intense reading of the Ives.)

The dance vocabulary varied - “Visitation’’ had suggestions of limb-shaking, drugged states, while “Empire Garden’’ had the company, dressed in colorful Chinese-bellhop costumes, flitting in a variety of floral and insect motions - but the basic patterns of interaction were essentially the same as in “A Lake.’’

Morris’s dances have a beautiful design and are often celebratory in mood. They rejoice in movement. They barely touch on the deeper human issues of aloneness, longing, the friction of intimacy, or the joy of social release (which requires a preceding experience of isolation). The music does, however, explore these things, in great depth. One couldn’t say that Morris captured the bleaker side of the Beethoven, and “Empire Garden’’ was a joyous and visually gorgeous romp - fecund as insect life, seen under a child’s magnifying glass. (You wanted to throw a piece of meat in there to see what would happen - that’s nature too!) It had almost nothing to do with the loneliness, nostalgia, and irony (a very American combination) in Ives’s music.

The original excitement of Mark Morris’s work was seeing ballet steps truly enjoyed and made expressive again with a charge of American energy. They have become decorative. What if he assigned himself difficult, uncomfortable music? Would he be forced to create uncomfortable dance? We deserve to be uncomfortable. We deserve the truth.

MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP With fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center

At Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Wednesday (repeated Thursday)

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