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Dance review

Mark Morris premieres a friendly frolic at Tanglewood

The Mark Morris Dance Group performing its world premiere of “The” at Tanglewood Music Center.Hilary Scott

LENOX — Near the end of Mark Morris’s new dance “The,” couples sway happily in each other’s arms before circling the stage, side by side, running, their clasped hands uplifted. On Friday night, this little victory lap felt particularly resonant: Earlier, the Supreme Court had given us much to celebrate, and those sweetly jubilant duos — male-female, male-male, female-female — said so much, as dance often does, without a word.

Oh, but there’s always an air of celebration when Morris — feted for his musicality — and his eponymous company appear at Tanglewood. One of the special charms of this year’s visit was the fact that “The,” a world premiere, choreographed to Max Reger’s four-hands arrangement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, was the bookend to the program’s opener: the orchestrated version performed by the gifted fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, conducted by Morris. (All the pieces were accompanied by live music.) Naturally, there was plenty of dancing up on the podium, as Morris bounced, swayed, and rocked to that irresistible Bach.


The middle piece on the program, Morris’s 2005 “Cargo,” is set to Darius Milhaud’s own piano quintet arrangement of his 1923 composition “La Création du monde.” The nine dancers enter in silence, cautiously approaching a long wooden pole lying center stage. When the pole is lifted the music begins, as if it were a giant conductor’s baton; the dancers gently push it around the circle, catching it with a weighted mixture of curiosity, reverence, and fear.

A program note references the South Pacific Island groups known as “cargo cults” that believed that “western manufactured goods (‘cargo’) were created for them by ancestral spirits.” Dancing in sequences that are often evocative of ritual, and lightly clad in costume designer Katherine McDowell’s cream briefs, bras, and camisoles, the dancers indeed suggest a kind of preindustrial society. Eventually there are three poles, all mysteries to be contemplated and/or conquered. At various times they conjure weapons, yokes, oars, and, of course, phalluses; the dance is rich with striking imagery. Those pictures, the intensity with which the dancers convey them, and the now-impressionistic, now-jazzy score keep us guessing: Is this play or war? Is the dancer dangling from the pole a child in a schoolyard or a martyr on a cross? The dancers are by turns fierce and funny, making the uncertainties compelling.


The only tension in “The,” however, is in a section in which most of the dancers seem asleep while others stand, with one leg raised in attitude. Tottering slightly, they fling the lifted leg front or back, their torsos and arms reacting, sharply accenting the shift. The sleepers unfurl an arm up, dreamily, and turn over; their fraught colleagues try to get them up, but they wiggle back down, in a kind of cartoon faint. It’s beautiful, it’s wonderfully strange, and — “The” being one of Morris’s friendly frolics — it’s all good. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes of mesh tops and satiny, wide-legged pants; Nicole Pearce’s warmly golden lighting design; Morris’s many quirky little themes and variations; and the dancers’ generously spirited performance combine for simple pleasure. Do I sound like a hopeless romantic? If you saw the dancers in those final little lovely duets, one sweeping the other up, while the lifted one, smiling, frames the face of his or her partner with loving hands, you’d probably swoon too.


Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com.