Darkness and light with Mark Morris

Amber Star Merkens (foreground) and other dancers perform Thursday night. Amber Star Merkens (foreground) and other dancers perform Thursday night. (Brian Snyder)
By Thea Singer
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2010

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Mark Morris’s choreography appears to be going through a seismic shift. The musicality he’s renowned for is there, but it’s less in-your-face step-for-note and more organic, rising from the score like vapor. That may be because there’s a darkness at the core of these newer dances — made visible Thursday night in one world premiere and two Boston premieres presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. It clings to you all the way home.

The darkness is there even when the dance is lit by a necklace of light — the actual backdrop for “Excursions’’ (2008), a regimented journey for six set to (or more precisely, sprung from) Samuel Barber’s “Excursions for the Piano,’’ played live with elegance and brio by Colin Fowler.

The dancers shape-shift continuously. They form a kind of chain gang — their arms the metal links between them. Five in a clump walk then halt, walk then halt. They freeze the stage space when they stop; a single dancer spins out — she’s a note let loose. Later the dancers lie in various angles of repose. Fetal positions evolve into deliberate crawls on all fours. Two men galumph along, a woman hanging between their legs as one grabs her by the crook of the knee and the other masters her head. There’s drama despite the lack of narrative: These are travelers in a storm.

“Petrichor,’’ a world premiere for eight women, is danced to Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “String Quartet No. 2,’’ for violin, viola, and cello. The title describes the scent arising after a rain, especially on dry ground. It’s apropos, because the dancers seem to dance not on but between the notes, as if dodging raindrops.

The piece, commissioned by Celebrity Series in honor of president Martha H. Jones’s 25th anniversary season, has an air of both romance and discordance about it, punctuated by the costumes of short filmy dresses over glistening cropped body suits. Indeed, shades of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan flit by, accentuated by impulses that jut from the dancers’ sternums. With crossed legs in plie, they pump their outstretched arms as wings. Canons beget solos beget phrases played straight and then turned inside out. Hands poise near ears: the better to hear you. In a paper-doll line, the dancers conjure positive and negative space at once. The tension builds as face to face, two women walk, one’s hand on the other’s shoulder, her partner’s planted on her waist.

The macabre and beautiful “Empire Garden’’ (2009) packs perhaps the biggest punch. It both emanates from and butts up against Charles Ives’s multi-layered “Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano, S. 86,’’ a melodic cacophony (yes, it’s an oxymoron) echoing everything from fraternity songs from Ives’s days at Yale to the Americana of “Old Kentucky Home.’’ The 15 dancers wear bright-colored outfits that seem a cross between marching-band attire and toy soldiers’ duds.

This is a world distorted and denatured; it’s tied up in knots but lit by painted faces. Outstretched arms waggle fingers, hands pull rifle triggers, mouths gape open, couples spoon in alignment. These are people who can just as easily march in goosestep as sink into their chests so deep their backs curve like rubber or crack apart to become Nijinsky’s two-dimensional faun. They are broken dolls shooting a fist overhead against an open hand. Just as easily, though, they close those hands in prayer.

Thea Singer can be reached at

MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Thursday night (program repeats through tomorrow)