In more than 40 years of dancemaking, Mark Morris has churned out works that are remarkably varied in scope, mood and style. But his best dances seem to have one thing in common: With little if any narrative, they manage to tell us something about ourselves. With conversational gestures, and movement that alternates between pedestrian and unapologetically grand, Morris captures the human experience at its most mundane and its most profound, and often all in the same dance.
Most of the works on his company’s Saturday program at George Mason University Center for the Arts were of that revelatory ilk, especially “Crosswalk,” set to a score for piano and clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber. Like sprinters off a starting block, the dancers begin the dance with urgent cross-stage runs. From there, the movement brilliantly transforms them into a range of other characters. With fists on hips, heels grinding into the floor, they are revelers at a party you want to go to. With a sequence of crisp, petit allegro jumps, three women become the ladies-who-lunch crowd, oozing prim propriety. And when one man is left onstage alone, curled in a ball, he is you at your darkest moment.
All of these scenes are sharpened by Michael Chybowski’s smart lighting design, which swings between cool blues in moments of desolation and warm oranges in moments of sunniness and pleasure.
“Jenn and Spencer” is something of a Rorschach test of a dance. Because it’s a depiction of two lovers’ ups and downs, your evaluation of the couple’s fate comes down to how you interpret Morris’s arresting images. When the woman rolls her head against her partner’s body, slipping from his trunk to his hips to his feet, are we watching honeymoon-style doting or crippling infatuation? When she abruptly falls backward, stiff as a plank, and is caught by her partner at the last minute, are we watching the ultimate act of trust or the ultimate act of recklessness?
Dancers Jenn Weddel and Sam Black were transfixing in these roles, responding authentically to the chilling score for violin and piano by Henry Cowell. (This work has previously been performed by Weddel and a dancer named Spencer Ramirez, hence its title.) They gave just enough emotional information to invite the audience in, and then forced us to connect the dots.
The structure of “Italian Concerto,” the program’s opening work, is extremely simple: A couple, a soloist and then another a couple successively enter stage and repeat the same movement phrases multiple times. In the end, the group joins together for a unison section. In another choreographer’s hands, it could be boring, but it works here because Morris has laid such rich movement phrases on that framework. Each time you watched these sequences, something new revealed itself.
A fourth work, “A Wooden Tree,” wasn’t nearly as fulfilling to watch. Morris is frequently and rightly praised for his musicality, his gift for taking a score and mining it for detail and emotion that audiences might not notice otherwise. In this piece, he doesn’t appear to put that skill to use.
The dance is set to short ditties by Ivor Cutler, the offbeat Scottish humorist and poet. The song lyrics are frequently bizarre, but with his steps and character development, Morris doesn’t seem to be exploring anything other than that incredibly obvious sense of strangeness. The dance is a string of corny slapstick jokes performed by characters with whom we don’t develop any connection.
It’s as if Morris’s central question in this work is, “Aren’t these scores wacky?”
That’s hardly an interesting enough premise to carry an entire dance.