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Mark Morris’ latest dances pay homage to love in the spring

Jules Becker | 5/23/2012, 10:36 a.m.

“In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

Mark Morris has probably followed this Alfred Lloyd Tennyson observation often in creating pieces for his New York-based dance group. Certainly the 56-year-old choreographer’s masterwork “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” devotes much of its exuberant movement to such thoughts.

So it goes with substantial parts of “The Muir” (2010) and “Festival Dance” (2011), two of Morris works which recently premiered in Boston with his “Socrates” (2010) at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

If the first two prove very spirited, the somewhat disappointing third lacks the kind of strong characterization evident in Morris’ “Dido and Aeneas.” Still, the strong company and the vibrant accompanying vocalists and musicians alone make the program worth seeing.

One of the company members with considerable stage time – especially in “The Muir” – is Michelle Yard. The veteran black company member joined Mark Morris Dance Group in 1997. Yard’s sharp arm and leg work throughout demonstrates why she is teaching master classes for the company’s residency program.

Yard catches the joy of courtship and sorrow of unfortunate lovers that move through “The Muir,” which first premiered at Tanglewood. Her facial expressiveness, nuanced gesturing and precise leg routines serve both the jauntiness of much of the early going, and the sadness of the Burns-accompanied close well.

The opening piece takes its title from a Robert Burns poem “The lovely lass of Inverness,” in which the words “Drumossie Muir” allude to the 1746 Battle of Culloden and the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie. As the playbill observes, the work’s nine Irish and Scottish songs were actually musically arranged by Beethoven.

The six dancers – three men and three women – articulate the pleasure and pain of love and courtship through exuberant turns and lifts on the one hand and striking descents on the other.

All of the accompanying vocalists – soprano Kristen Watson, tenor Matthew Anderson and baritone Michael Kelly – express the alternating joy and sorrow of the songs by Burns, Walter Scott and others, as well as anonymous poets.

Kelly deserves a special nod for singing in his tenor range on “Socrates.”

Here, as in other visiting programs, Morris laudably continues to perform with live music when many other troupes do not. Audiences can look forward to a fine trio for the Beethoven arrangements – pianist Colin Fowler, cellist Paul Wiancho and violinist Georgy Valtchev – all whom play with the kind of sensitivity needed to match the movement of the three couples and the three singers in “The Muir” and the 12 dancers in ”Festival Dance.”

For the latter, they catch the lyricism and lilt of the Johann Nepomuk Hummel piano trio. The trios and other combinations in “Festival Dances” have the right qualities of merriment and ritual.

The one problematic piece is “Socrates.” The combination of dancing, singing and playing comes together here, too, with Fowler once again inspired on piano and Kelly singing with fine French pronunciation on Eric Satie’s “Socrate.”

Morris’ choreography needs much more variation .The playbill notes list the three parts of the Satie piece “Portrait of Socrates,” “On the banks of the Illisus” and “The Death of Socrates.”

Unfortunately, the portrait opening lacks enough movement illustration of what made Socrates a famed teacher and mentor, and the third part ought to have more drama.

Unlike most of Morris’ company’s visits, the result does not quite meet expectation. But the talent on hand and Morris make the event still worth any dance lover’s attention.


Morris will be performing at Tanglewood on June 28-29, 2012 in Lenox, Mass.