Part kimono-clad empress, part inner-directed samurai, Mark Morris is at his joyful and sensuous best in "Serenade," the solo given its world premiere Saturday at George Mason University. He establishes little new choreographic ground here, nor does he open new avenues of expression. And we've seen the choreographer work these themes before: the holiness of great music and the mystery of androgyny. Yet "Serenade" is a distillation of Morris's aesthetic in a new, pure fashion. In a quiet, undemonstrative way, it is the essential Morris.
The work is deceptively simple: Morris is aglow on a darkened stage, dancing on a rather small scale -- a shoulder roll here, a few stamps there -- while off to the side a guitarist and percussionist ripple through Lou Harrison's delicate "Serenade for Guitar." Morris is dressed by Isaac Mizrahi in a white wrap top, tied with a bow at the back, and long, full black skirt -- an elegant costume that suggests the meticulous folds and ritualistic precision of formal Japanese dress for both sexes. Morris's dancing, too, crosses gender lines, in its mix of forceful, percussive hopping and soft, silky arms.
Morris performs each of the five sections with a different prop: For the first he is seated on a small stool, for the second he brandishes a gleaming baton, then he uses a fan, finger cymbals and castanets. He doesn't leave the stage between sections; he picks up each new accessory and deposits the old one on a stand over by the musicians (Oren Fader on guitar, Stefan Schatz on percussion). The whole proceeding has a straightforward, matter-of-fact feel.
This puts the focus on what has always been of utmost importance to Morris: beautiful movement, beautiful music, presented in unbroken harmony that feels as natural as breathing. This was apparent on a larger scale in the three other works on the Mark Morris Dance Group's program -- "New Love Song Waltzes," "Going Away Party" and "V" -- but "Serenade" was a tutorial of exquisite concision.
It was also a showpiece for the uninhibited, robust movement style that is a Morris hallmark. In his mid-forties and, shall we say, generously proportioned, Morris is nevertheless the most natural mover in his company, able to seem completely, ecstatically abandoned in a complicated thicket of steps. He has created nearly 20 other solos, many of them more dramatically driven or emotionally rich than "Serenade." But "Serenade," in its shadows, its isolation of one or two serenely moving limbs, and its perfect marriage with Harrison's gossamer-fine composition, is a gentle gem.
Its modesty was also an effective counterpoint to the ebullient quality of the group works. Seeing "V," the program's closer, remains as thrilling and uplifting an experience as it was on first viewing last year; by the work's end, it feels as much a triumphant affirmation of the human spirit as George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" or Frederick Ashton's "Symphonic Variations." What was especially interesting Saturday, however, was seeing the image of troubled relations refracted and digested in different ways in "V" as well as in "New Love Song Waltzes" (1982) and "Going Away Party" (1990).
"Going Away Party" has a boppy, pushy, "how y'all doin' " feel at the outset -- the dancers are in jeans, cowboy boots, culottes and kicky red pumps. The country-western songs by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys carry the three couples through a Texas two-step and stylized square dance sequences; it looks like so much fun you expect a pitcher of beer and a platter of tamales to materialize. Then you notice the happy time starting to spoil. Gestures morph: Are the women freshening their lipstick -- or holding their men at gunpoint? A line in a song urging the listener to "get on your knees and pray" turns into what looks like a forced sex act -- certainly a demeaning one -- and the men mime relieving themselves afterward. A lone dancer, who is black (Charlton Boyd), is the odd man out, never invited to join the couples (all white), and seeming not to care . . . or not much.
"New Love Song Waltzes," created back when the Mark Morris Dance Group was new, also presents problematic views of love. Brahms's Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 65 (gorgeously sung by Eileen Clark, Barbara Rearick, James Archie Worley and Christopher Roselli), accompanied the dancers' at times tender, at times contentious pairings. But as in "V," the broken hearts find salvation in the group, where contact is made, hands are clasped, and yet there is room for a dancer to gaze off at her own horizon. The collective doesn't mandate conformity; it leaves room for individual expression. This is, in fact, what Morris has created for himself with his dance company.