MARK MORRIS'S work has a solid, certain quality these days, as if he has arrived at some inevitable destination in his choreography. That inevitability is the result of knowing exactly what he wants, knowing the strengths of his dancers, and harnessing the power of music.
Each spring, Morris returns to the Boston area like a bird from a warmer climate: This year, again under the sponsorship of Dance Umbrella, his group dropped in for a six-week residency and two weeks of performances that end tomorrow. Dance Umbrella's director Jeremy Alliger deserves credit for building a relationship between New England audiences and Morris's troupe by giving this talented choreographer an annual showcase.
The company brought two programs to the Emerson Majestic Theatre, the first of which ended last Sunday. That batch of dances was by far the finest and most accessible of Morris's choreography. Morris is at his best in a storytelling mode, often when he plays off modern gestures against rich classical music, particularly Baroque. He delights in fugal compositions, and watching his choreography is like having someone diagram a fugue in all its intricate beauty.
In the Program A dance "Canonic 3/4 Studies," set to an arrangement of waltzes, Morris has created a slapstick fugue. He pays homage to silent film and the jerky antics of such performers as Buster Keaton. The dancers move rigidly like mechanical toys. In a series of moves, a male dancer picks up and rearranges two stiff-legged female dancers like straw figures. Various members of the company tootle around on their toes as if they were tickling piano keys.
In "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano," the choreographer seems to be concerned with group dynamics, and how the individual fits (or does not fit) into the whole. (Many of Morris's dances embody a democratic ideal; he places more emphasis on the collective energy than on displays of individual virtuosity. Instead of extended solos, the performers work together to build the dance's personality and character.) Here Morris explores the idea of an outsider by having one dancer step outside the group to express h is individuality. The dancer faces temporary rejection by the group and must later win back his place.
To the strains of Poulenc, dancers in pink sleeveless turtlenecks and black tights dip as if to touch baptismal water. They bless the person who is leaving, but they also censure him. They come and go onstage, greeting, leaving, and returning in a pensive, elegiac manner.
From Poulenc's powerful score, Morris moved to the ballads of contemporary singer Michelle Shocked for the dance "Home." One of the consistent pleasures of a Mark Morris dance concert is the live music. The singer, whose voice glides between an airy soprano and a country-and-western twang, joined Rob Wasserman on upright bass and fiddle for their four-song set. Shocked's lyrics are a kind of Woody Guthrie gone sour - they describe farms and working people in terms of sadness, loss, and disinfranchisement , and they are riveting.
Instrumental interludes separate the mournful ballads in "Home." They are livelier and more cheerful, especially because the dancers move into a routine that combines clogging-style dance with some aspects of soft-shoe. "Home" is an integrated dance that successfully mixes Americana with a hard-edged 1990s sensibility.
Program B, which has been going on this week, pales a bit in comparison to the earlier program. Contemporary classical music (such as Henry Cowell's string quartets) doesn't draw out Morris's best work. Because he does better with storytelling and lacks the large abstract-movement vocabulary of a Martha Graham, Morris's efforts with modern music can be repetitious.
TWO dances that shone above the others were "Bedtime," set to three songs by Schubert, and the world premiere (commissioned by Dance Umbrella) of "Jesu, Meine Freude," set to Bach.
"Bedtime" travels through ever-deeper regions of sleep, symbolized by cradling and rocking motions. The dancers begin in fetal position and their vulnerability is touching. Nightmarish menace erupts in "Erlkonig," the third song, in which a young child is stolen by the Erlking from the arms of his father.
In "Jesu, Meine Freude," it was hard to compete with the chorus, led by Boston's Craig Smith. To the glorious ebbing and flowing of choral waves, the dancers were only a minor, though compelling, accompaniment. Morris tapped "Jesu, Meine Freude" for its religious inspiration, but his choreography is less about redemption than it is heavy and dogmatic, with poses taken from devotional paintings and Christian iconography.
The dancers, clothed and lighted in stark white, were so connected to the music that they pulsed with it. For a choreographer to convey his musicality so completely to a group of dancers is in itself an achievement.
* Morris's company performs at The Egg in Albany, N.Y., on June 18; in Aspen, Colo., July 15-17; and at Jacob's Pillow in Lee, Mass., July 20-24.