Fall for Dance at City Center is frequently a mixed bag: On the one hand you can, for a relatively cheap price, see not one but four different companies, in a usually very varied program; on the other hand, many of these well-diversified bills wind up with two to three duds and one very strong piece. Although this wasn’t quite the case with Program 1, it was clear that the first three performances were only build-up to the final work of the evening—Mark Morris’ world premiere Words.

Black Grace © Duncan Cole
Black Grace
© Duncan Cole
Black Grace, a company blending western movement with traditional Samoan dance style, performed Minoi (with an all-male cast) and Pati Pati (which started out with a group of women who were later joined by men). Both pieces utilized body percussion, which the program note explained is a hallmark of Samoan dance. Minoi’s opening felt primal and powerful: The men stood in a V, bathed in a red-orange light, slapping their thighs and bare chests in rhythms that became increasingly intricate. When they added a sharp turn of the head and the flick of an arm, the whoosh that the movement produced as it sliced through the air was so different from the crackling body percussion that it felt revolutionary. But what started out as hypnotizing felt. by the end, somewhat repetitive and even cheerleader-ish.

San Francisco Ballet then presented Hans Van Manen’s icily bland Variations for Two Couples. Two couples took turns onstage, the women either in high développés à la seconde as their male partners tilted them off-center or being slid rapidly across the downstage space by their coolly detached attendants. Each couple was nearly interchangeable, often told apart solely by the color of the women’s unitards (either blue or purple), though Vanessa Zahorian (clad in blue) commanded a more puritan, regal presence.

Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham in Van manen's <i>Variation for Two Couples</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham in Van manen's Variation for Two Couples
© Erik Tomasson

Russell Maliphant’s Two x Two, danced by Yuan Yuan Tan (also of San Francisco Ballet) and Fang-Yi Sheu, felt – much like Minoi and Pati Pati – initially mesmerizing and later thin. The two women never moved from their solo spots (Ms. Sheu’s downstage left, Ms. Tan’s upstage right), and Mr. Maliphant’s choreography was something of a character study for port de bras. Their sinewy, slender arms carved through the space, first gently and eventually rapidly, producing magical traceforms that soon became more beautiful than the movement itself. Michael Hulls, lighting designer (with whom Maliphant has long collaborated) deserves particular credit for evoking such an eerie and beautiful atmosphere.

But it was Morris’ Words, set to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words that held fast as the evening’s main attraction.

Mark Morris Dance Group in <i>Words</i> © Ani Collier- MMDG
Mark Morris Dance Group in Words
© Ani Collier- MMDG
Morris once again proved himself a master at transforming easeful-looking, pedestrian movement into musically complementary and joyous choreography. A swift enveloppe as the upper body curves forward over the leg could feel lighthearted or harried; a piano motif that sent the dancers scurrying onstage, as if looking for or waiting for something to begin, could be both humorous and worried. Morris knows how to craft a piece that retains mystery and yet feels familiar by its end, with recurring motifs, both in movement and format. Two dancers would traverse the stage carrying a light-gold large square of fabric, and others would either scurry behind it to walk offstage unnoticed or step behind it to enter the stage almost invisibly. There is no wasted movement, no silly artifice here; I remember being surprised by a double pirouette, tossed off but perfect. These are dancers who have worked tirelessly to shape Mr. Morris’ idiosyncratic vocabulary to their very adept bodies. It all seems natural and even looks easy.

Morris’s piece was the perfect ending to the evening, despite the wait that preceded it and occasionally felt as if it must be just endured. His sparkling choreography felt, by turns, frothy and serious, playful and borderline melancholic. You leave feeling as if you’ve consumed a delicious meal.

***11