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Review: Morris Dance Group a special treat

Stephanie Berger Photography.
A scene from the Mark Morris Dance Group performing 'Festival Dance' during the Mostly Mozart Festival presented by Lincoln Center at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center on August 18, 2011.

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Sunday, May 5, 2013, 11:51 a.m.

The genius of Mark Morris was exhilarating to experience the night of May 4 when his company provided the high point of Pittsburgh Dance Council's 2012-13 season at its final offering. The group performed three of his pieces, all created in the past few years and all exemplifying his special gifts.

Morris is likely the most musical choreographer since George Balanchine and achieves a comparable symbiosis of dance with music. Morris takes inspiration from the give-and-take of music's unfolding and also plays off formal structures. His choreography has a feeling of freshness and playfulness, just as composers play with notes.

The program began with “The Muir,” which is set to Irish and Scottish folk songs arranged by Ludwig van Beethoven. The music was performed live and unamplified by soprano Danya Katok, tenor Zach Finkelstein, baritone Douglas Williams, violinist Georgy Valtchev, cellist Andrew Janss and pianist Colin Fowler.

The piece began with three couples dancing joyously to “Ye Shepherds of this pleasant vale.” The choreography features inventive sequences of dance vocabulary, all perfectly attuned to the energy level of the music. Morris uses the multiple stanzas of these songs for extra variations, such as having the women take the lead in the second stanza.

He also varies the number of dancers from song to song — for example, featuring the exquisite Michelle Yard as the only woman in the love song “Sally in Our Alley.”

Only a musical choreographer would dare to set a piece to Heitor Villa-Lobos' String Quartet No. 2, which Morris used for “Petrichor.” It is more emotionally complex than forthright and some of its rhythms are anything but flowing.

The choreography for eight women is stunning in its perceptiveness on both the closest and broadest levels. His dance breathes with the music. The overlapping sweeping patterns Morris develops in a modern-accented romantic idea in the quartet's first movement has elements that are used more jaggedly as the music proceeds. The moves for the tricky main theme of the finale are a brilliant solution to “missing” beats, and he even has bursts that are more energetic than the music.

The concert concluded with “Festival Dance,” performed by 12 dancers to Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Piano Trio No. 5. Morris unfailingly finds movement that is perfectly aligned with the music. At one point, three emphatic chords in a dotted rhythm are expressed with a bold gesture, and when the music continues less rigidly, the dancers move forward but are now bent away from each other at the waist.

Like Balanchine, Morris feels free in his use of a dance gesture with the associated musical ideas. He has a lovely idea using both arms extended to descend, almost as a leaf does, which he sometimes uses in unison with the music, sometimes after and sometimes before we hear the idea.

Not everyone will pick up the way the dance plays off musical form. The first movement of “Festival Dance,” for example, begins with a long duet which lasts throughout the music's exposition section. At the start of the development section, Morris increases the dancers to six.

But anyone could recognize other elements of form, including that the ballet ends as it begins, with one couple in embrace.

Mark Morris Dance Group is a strong ensemble. It is well rehearsed yet feels spontaneous. The dancers excel as a group but have ample individual identity according to the flexible textures Morris employs.

The choreographer always uses live music, and brought outstanding musicians to Pittsburgh. The singers had the right voices for folk music, with strength that never felt operatic. The piano trio and string quartet gave expressively focused and technically polished performances that would be admirable in a recording. But performing with a recording would not have the same feel of anticipation on an upbeat, such as pianist Colin Fowler achieved, if it was just being followed by the dancers.

Experiencing Mark Morris Dance group is a special treat, and one Dance Council should work to make less rare in Pittsburgh.

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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