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dance review

An intensely joyful performance from Mark Morris Dance Group at Jacob’s Pillow

Lauren Grant (front) and the Mark Morris Dance Group in “Prelude and Prelude.”Christopher Duggan

BECKET — This week at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 15 dancers and two musicians of the Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble are performing four works by Morris. The dances span the group’s nearly four decades, each bearing the company’s trademarks: a voluptuous largesse of movement anchored by a very fine unity with the music. It’s an intensely joyful program.

The program certainly underscores Morris’s extraordinary ear, but it also trumpets the importance of musicality in dancers. The company is in exceptionally fine form, both technically and musically. Meanwhile, the two musicians — pianist and ensemble music director Colin Fowler and violinist Georgy Valtchev — are superb, two soloists who throughout the evening create an orchestra of sound.


The brief “Prelude and Prelude” is, as its title suggests, a kind of twinned dance. Accompanied by Fowler and Valtchev performing Henry Cowell’s comforting yet melancholic “Set of Two for Violin and Harpsichord,” the cast of nine is discovered onstage in a diagonal line, each holding a folded fan. In the first of the two sections, one, Dallas McMurray, is ejected from the diagonal while the others remain, executing a looping series of stylized but halting poses like friezes come to life. The fans become extensions of arms, or masks for faces, or faux-modest coverage for crotches. McMurray, meanwhile, his mask now folded and clenched in this mouth, rolls softly on the floor, belly-first, like he’s floating in a pool, or balances on one leg, his opposite arm slowly tracing a circle in the air. In the second part, McMurray is the line’s sole placeholder, while the others dissipate, now spread out around the stage. It’s an evocative, faintly amusing dance, like a private joke whose punch line we can’t quite catch.

There’s no coy coverup in “Sport”: Morris’s new frolic wears its infectiously silly heart on its sleeve. To Erik Satie’s “Sports et Divertissements” — a series of often witty vignettes, some quite short, for solo piano, with various titles indicating athletic or leisurely play — the 12 dancers perform a continuous cascade of dance/mime sketches with a vividness at once cartoonish and deadpan. Costumed in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s playful, two-toned jumpsuits, sets of three dancers become playground swings; a brief tennis match plays out with comic arduousness; a hunting party forms in a flash, and down go several darling bunnies, mid-hop. It’s almost too cute, all of this, but the unmistakable craft — of Morris’s staging, the dancers’ execution, Fowler’s playing — elevates the work. It’s an easy pleasure.


Valtchev rejoins Fowler again for a piano/violin arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” the score for Morris’s exquisite 2014 “Words.” Although the company is only presenting excerpts of the work this week, there is a clear sense of connected wholeness to the parts. A series of duets anchor the dance, with Laurel Lynch and Brandon Randolph arching and swooning deeply against each other, their passion luxuriously expressed, while Brandon Cournay and Noah Vinson’s yearning is continually thwarted, their anguish visceral as they crumple inward, their hands clenching and clawing at their own faces or bellies.

The closer, Morris’s 1993 “Grand Duo,” is a masterpiece. Named for Lou Harrison’s composition for violin and piano, the work for 14 dancers begins eerily, the performers stoic in wide stances, their hands framing their pelvises. A whiff of foreboding is complemented by the ceremonial quality of much of the groupings and dance phrases, but these stormy skies hold up. Though the last section may be a polka in meter, there’s nothing light and prancing about it. It’s gloriously grounded, a pounding, relentlessly paced composition that builds with a kind of ritualistic fervor. Oh, how the musicians play on, and how the dancers press on, unflagging. We sense their breath, their effort; how our hearts pound, and pound, and pound, with theirs.



At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $35-$78. 413-243-0745,

Janine Parker can be reached at