Mark Morris Dance Group is beloved by the audiences of Berkeley, and it’s a mutual admiration. Berkeley has long been known for its radical in-your-face-question-authority stance, and that suits Mark Morris perfectly. His dancers and his choreography have long wagged their collective satiric tongue at the pretentions of dance, both classical and modern, and the audiences of the Bay Area greet each MMDG twist, turn and prance with eager good will. 

This past weekend, MMDG was again on the stage of Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall with two new programs, each comprised of several Bay Area premieres. The MMDG Music Ensembl came along,with Gregory Valtchev (violin), Wolfram Koessel (cello) and Yegor Shevtsov (piano), all proving, once again, that Mark Morris has impeccable taste in musicians.

Mark Morris Dance Group in <i>The Muir</i> © Richard Termine
Mark Morris Dance Group in The Muir
© Richard Termine

The first half of Program A; The Muir, set to nine of Beethoven’s Irish and Scottish folksong arrangements, and A Wooden Tree, set to 14 of Scottish poet Ivor Cutler’s whimsical and humorously existential ditties, should really have played in Edinburgh's pre-referendum.

Three singers from the wonderful Philharmonia Chorale – soprano Angela Arnold, tenor Jonathan Smucker and baritone Daniel Pickens-Jones – joined the MMDG Music Ensemble for The Muir. Although they were mic-ed, the singers stood just above the musicians and to stage right, a placement that hampered the projection of their lovely voices on the left side of the audience. Smucker stood out for his exceptional diction and clarity. Just to keep the number three obsessional, the dance ensemble, composed of three men and three women, shifted through the individual pieces primarily as pas de trois that resolved now and again into duets, solos, and pas de six. Typically, Morris’ choreographic approach to the songs included much pantomime and descriptive dancing that playfully attacked the predictable silliness of love. Swains crawled on their knees toward their beloveds, each knee striking the floor in time to the square rhythms of the song. And the women, satin ribbons geometrically wrapping their bodices, appeared and disappeared, prancing off like mischievous visions. 

Mark Morris Dance Group in <i>Jenn and Spencer</i> © Stephanie Berger
Mark Morris Dance Group in Jenn and Spencer
© Stephanie Berger
The six dancers turned into a gang of eight in an imaginary pub for A Wooden Tree, a piece in which the music is provided by recordings of Ivor Cutler’s voice accompanied by intermittent harmonium. Cutler’s precarious style of humour and his somewhat fragile delivery gave his speech a remarkably melodic quality, whether spoken or sung. Again, the choreography was full of pantomime: arms on high in round shapes to portray the sunflower and sun of a “yellow flower in the grass”, the lighting on the back scrim a clear, fresh green. Like in The Muir, romance is the theme, as equally and playfully unmanageable except for small ephemeral moments: “Well, you are the center of your little world/ And I am of mine./ Now and again we meet for tea/ We’re two of a kind./ This is our universe, cups of tea./ We have a beautiful cosmos, you and me.”

The second half of the program was more serious in its approach to love and companionship. The first piece, Jenn and Spencer, is a duet named after two of Morris’ dancers, Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez, set to the music of Henry Cowell – the six part Suite for Violin and Piano duet. That Morris named a piece after his dancers is indicative of the closeness of the group. Dancers can form tight and near unbreakable bonds wth their directors... Morris’ expansive personality and particular style, which has always strived to run counter to tradition, have created almost a counter-culture within the wider artistic community. 

Many choreographers have gone for more extreme movement, for which dancers must be assiduously cultivated, a tendency representativ, of Balanchine's legacy, in his preference for ultra-thin body type, lightning fast movement and overt extensions. Morris, in contrast, has always opted for a diversity of body type and for movement based on exuberant and continuous energy: extensions are low, pirouettes, beats and chainé turns are non-existent, gestures are pictorial and align closely to the tempi of the music, movement is more often staccato than lyric, and anything smacking of bravura is comedic. 

Although there are limitations to Morris’ gravity-based choreography, it's impossible to deny the beauty and strength of his dancers, who move through their paces with assurance and grace. In the opening of Jenn and Spencer the two dancers circle each other with the attraction of planets, inevitable and engaged with forces that are both massive and undeniable. Odd gestures reminiscent of other dance vocabulary – were those the heel cliques of a Polonaise? – flicker through the steps.

Mark Morris Dance Group in <i>Festival Dance</i> © Amber Star Merkens
Mark Morris Dance Group in Festival Dance
© Amber Star Merkens
Circles become the microcosmic: there are pas de chats turning in mid air, and a spectacular pas de deux movement, with the man twisting the woman's body hand over hand as she revolves around him. Jenn Weddel danced her own part, and Sam Black Spencer's. He is a super dancer, masculine and naturally impelled in his movement.

The concert closed with Festival Dance, a long three-part work for twelve dancers. Like the pieces of the first half, it's characteristic choreography, which, this time around lacked the broader aspects of humour, was a flowing, at times seething representation of the word "festival". The dance was dynamic and engaging – an homage to the natural gusto of young dancers.

Not quite the last piece though: that was performed by Morris, who joined his dancers with expansive and lordly gestures, decked out in large black-and-white plaid Bermuda shorts (thinking Scottish again?), black socks and black shoes.