Maybe it's the anniversary - a big one, 30 years - that lent the Mark Morris Dance Group a surprising and almost sentimental sweetness. For in its performances this past weekend at George Mason University, as part of a celebratory tour marking the survival milestone, one quality emerged over and over: charm.
Morris has created his share of drier, cooler and cerebral works, but on view Friday were four beautifully juicy ones. "Petrichor," his newest, formed the dazzling centerpiece. In creating it, Morris turned to the women of his company. Several of his veteran male dancers had retired, and their replacements needed time to come up to speed on the repertoire. Born of necessity, Morris's first all-female work carries the fresh tang of inspiration.
Visually, it's a stunner. The eight women wear short, filmy gowns that look like baby-doll pajamas. But costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman put on the brakes before the look grew too precious. Some of the frocks are hot pink, others orange, and to ease the effect, a few are cool gray. Underneath, the dancers wear tight silver shorts that emphasize muscular legs. Girly on top, all business below.
The stage is shadowy, mottled with spots of light, like a subterranean grotto. Liquid light and liquid movement are the motifs in this work, and the title echoes that theme. The word "petrichor" refers to the scent of rain on dry earth, and it derives from the Greek name for what flows through the veins of gods. Could any one word hold more poetic images? Morris's piece builds on them with a barely indicated emotional tone as subtle as an aroma, and a physical dynamic that's as strong as it is light.
The music is Heitor Villa-Lobos's String Quartet No. 2, played live, as is typical of this company. It is full of muscular tension and a modern pulse; it comes at you in a torrent, and the choreography responds in unexpected ways. One dancer glides backward as if she's caught in a riptide. Groups of women rise and stir, one after the other, bobbing and spinning, forming eddies and crosscurrents. At one point they all strike a crouched pose with their arms swept to one side that recalls a Degas ballet pastel. Ballroom airs creep into the music, and in one deeply romantic passage, the dancers pair up for tango riffs - not doing the steps, exactly, but capturing the intimacy. A violin sounds and they rise on their toes with a slight twist in the torso, cupping their hands by their ears in a pose out of ancient sculpture.
Morris admires the British choreographer Frederick Ashton, and in some ways - the sweep of the dancing, the dancers' openness across the shoulders - this piece recalls Ashton's "Ondine," a 1958 ballet about a water nymph. Certainly the idea of protective naiads and life-givers was present. Then there was the overall sense of self-possession and independence among the women that felt contemporary. Morris's female vision reaches backward and forward, and certainly beyond the predictable.
"Excursions," accompanied by Samuel Barber's piano composition of the same name, was as geometric as "Petichor" was soft - the dancers walked around a square on the stage, and the movement vocabulary was minimalistic. So much the better for throwing the wittiness of the gestures into relief. Even more whimsical was "Silhouettes," danced on Friday by Domingo Estrada Jr. and Noah Vinson, in pajamas. One wore the top; the other, the bottoms, like a cute married couple. Colin Fowler played Richard Cummings's "Silhouettes - Five Pieces for Piano" with a light, breezy tone that lifted the men's antics like helium.
The charm in "Going Away Party," though, was rougher. Morris created it in 1990, when his company was in residence in Belgium, and he was homesick. But not so nostalgic that he wasn't also clear-eyed. The swing of music by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys is jaunty, and the dancers in tacky Western gear are too, at first. But then the men devolve into jerks, and the self-absorbed women don't catch on too quick. You cringe at some of the images; after pushing their dates around, the men mime relieving themselves on a wall with arrogant nonchalance. Threading through the coarseness, though, is a prince in silver cowboy boots (William Smith III, a splendid dancer who combines nobility and innocence). He's the moral center, performing an almost unbearably tender solo and later joining the ensemble like a disenchanted witness. This was the part Morris danced, originally. He can give us charming, sure - and also its underbelly.