The two artists were friends, and Harrison’s music has been almost a guiding spirit to Morris’s company. Followers of the Mark Morris Dance Group may have heard more of Harrison’s Asian-influenced, gently insistent and rousing music than many new-music audiences have.
So much of Harrison’s work is beautifully suited for dancing; you can hear this in the cyclical undulations, the bell-like tones inspired by Javanese gamelan music and the supple rhythms that feel organic, like breathing. “Numerator,” accompanied by Harrison’s “Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion,” plays with all of these qualities. The five-part score flickers and shimmers, and has a sense of rolling forward against gentle resistance.
In response, Morris has created an all-male affair, from the six dancers to the musicians. Is this significant? Having only men onstage makes it feel abstract, at least at first. You’re watching dancing objects. I started thinking of the choreography as music on the page: clusters of synchronized dancers as chords, solo turns as single notes. Periodically, a dancer lands his hop in a one-legged crouch, and this sudden, silent stillness is like a musical rest. As the dancers in their brightly colored shirts sweep across the stage, against a black background, the fullness of their actions is carved in space, lingering like notes on paper.
True to its title, “Numerator” is, in one sense, a poetic math game, with images of a whole fractionating into separate parts. But Harrison’s music is shaded with poignancy and sweetness, and this palpable warmth is in the dancing too. The dancers stand shoulder to shoulder, link arms, pair up; there are flashes of ballroom dance and quick embraces. Duets form, separate, re-form and, in the end, the men rush into one another’s arms. If I were to give this dance a one-word description, I’d simply call it loving. Oh, yes, it feels significant.
One of the great pleasures of Morris’s choreography is the freedom of the body. A dancer kicks a leg up and circles it around in a high, controlled arc, and it’s as expressive as a beckoning arm gesture. Isolated movements can look like a full-bodied sign language, spoken with any available limb. You saw this in “Little Britten,” which opened the program. Pianist Colin Fowler, in a hoodie and what looked like pajama pants, played 17 Benjamin Britten waltzes and variations as three dancers bounded and squiggled, fleshly doodles in Isaac Mizrahi’s minimalist and vaguely Greco-Roman-inspired costumes. Several of the piano works were lovely, but a little of Britten’s dryness goes a long way, and “Little Britten” had a lot of it.
“The Trout,” which capped the evening, premiered last year, like “Little Britten.” It feels like an alfresco romp as seen by Noel Coward, all entrances and exits and brief, intense encounters, accompanied by Schubert’s “Trout Quintet.” The dancers were dressed in trousers and tea-dresses, but they moved like Isadora Duncan nymphs, in an unending flow. Yet what flows can also unravel, as Morris seems to warn us in the end. Life is complicated. And, seen through his eyes, captivating.
The Mark Morris Dance Group will perform with the MMDG Music Ensemble at the Center for the Arts Concert Hall at George Mason University on Saturday at 8 p.m.
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