Mark Morris Premieres a Dance More Major Than ‘Minor’

A less confident, more mild-mannered choreographer might not have named his latest work “A minor Dance.” But Mark Morris, saucy and never shy to crack a joke, has done just that with his world premiere set to Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor. For this choreographer, music means everything; his title is a wink, not to the work’s worth, but to its key signature.

This new dance, its piano solo performed by the company’s music director, Colin Fowler, premiered on Tuesday at the Joyce Theater, as part of a two-program run for the Mark Morris Dance Group — which began last week with a mixed bill featuring the wonderfully eccentric “A Wooden Tree” (2012) and the classic “Grand Duo” (1993), and continues through the weekend.

In its more than 40-year history, Morris’s company has never performed at the Joyce. It’s been a pleasure to see the dancers, especially the excellent and soon-to-be-departing Domingo Estrada Jr., performing at closer proximity than, say, at an opera house (but also mercifully not as close as when they perform at Morris’s center in Brooklyn.)

“A minor Dance,” gratifyingly, isn’t so minor. Six dancers, wearing separates by Elizabeth Kurtzman — short-sleeve T-shirts and belted colorful culottes for the women, and pants for the men — imprint the stage with swooping curves as their bodies tilt and bend, reversing course from the weight of an outstretched leg. At the start, five dancers lie on their backs with bent knees while Mica Bernas stands to the side and claps her hands, holding them together, for a split second, in a fist. (Later, her clap heralds a blackout.)

Soon the stage becomes a lively swirl of bodies, almost birdlike, as if the air has made the dancers’ arms and legs more billowy. Among these individuals are couples that gravitate together in ways that are almost imperceptible: Bernas with Billy Smith; Courtney Lopes with Estrada; Nicole Sabella with Brandon Randolph.

In one evocative moment, the dancers, three at a time, create a water wheel with their bodies — at least the top half of one, with the bottom half seemingly dipped underwater. They grip hands and take turns moving from the floor to standing and back to the floor to create the sensation of a moving wheel. The magic of these interlocking bodies passing one position off to the next is strangely suspenseful. In another section, the men are surrounded by the women, who watch closely from the perimeter as though they’re trying to keep their eyes on a ball. This is a game; fittingly, they trade places.

In the end, amid patterns of running and walking, skipping and jumping, the dancers spring into the air, separating their legs like scissors before peeling off into the wings. One dancer, Smith, is at the end of the line; but instead of taking off, he crumbles to the floor — a surprise move, appropriately, in a minor-major kind of way.

Tuesday’s program closed with a robust dance from Morris’s earliest days: “Castor and Pollux” (1980), staged by Tina Fehlandt, a founding member of the company, and set to a score by the experimental composer Harry Partch, whose handmade instruments create a curious percussive world. Morris has always been open to unusual sounds and fell in love with Partch as a teenager, when “Castor and Pollux” was included as a bonus record on an album he bought. “The sound of his music, played on homemade instruments — gongs and plucked strings — made perfect sense to me,” Morris writes in his memoir.

The sight of eight dancers twisting and hopping through Morris’s winding circles makes perfect sense today, too. “Castor and Pollux” is ferocious, raw yet precise and in possession of an unquenchable wildness. The dreamlike Karlie Budge, who gives off an otherworldly aura here and elsewhere this Morris season, opens the dance with grounded feet and thighs. As she rounds her arms, she uses the weight of her body to absorb the floor and, in turn, create buoyancy.

As the others join in, there is a floppy spring to how the choreography guides them backward and forward; their feet, neither pointed nor flexed, produce rhythms and changes of directions in turns within larger moving circles. In the final, breathtaking pose — after the dancers run with zeal, twisting to the floor and popping back up — they stand, planting their feet wide apart like warriors. You can see there the skeleton of Morris’s “Grand Duo.” To have been able to watch them back to back would have been heaven.

The program started out more sleepily, with the stage premiere of “Tempus Perfectum,” set to Brahms’s 16 Waltzes (Op. 39) and created for a pandemic-era livestream in 2021. Now this was a minor dance, with echoes of social distancing in its spacing and repetition; the dancers, copping a childlike quality, brought an atmosphere more sentimental than innocent.

Both Joyce programs, no matter their rewards, included one dance too many — which, for all the live music, a Morris mandate, and articulate dancing, revealed a choreographic sameness. Two of the run’s most distinct works were set to recorded music; in the Partch, it couldn’t be helped, and the same was true of “A Wooden Tree,” an odd and winning work accompanied by the words and music of Ivor Cutler, the Scottish composer, humorist and poet.

In that work’s 14 songs, Morris weaves his gestural, nuanced choreography into the narrative with a sleek deftness that embellishes the humor of the lyrics without coming on too strong. It could become overly silly, but he plays it straight, pulling out of both the music and the dance something that can be elusive in performance: whimsy. He trusts the body to tell the stories, and there is nothing wooden about it.

Gia Kourlas is the dance critic of The New York Times. More about Gia Kourlas

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