The annual Mostly Mozart Festival kicked off with a triple bill of Mark Morris works including a world premiere, Sport, set to Erik Satie's Sports et Divertissements. The program also included his 2009 work Empire Garden and his well known classic V.

<i>V</i> © Robbie Jack
V
© Robbie Jack

I admire much of Mark Morris' intentions: I love that he uses serious pieces of classical music for his dances; that he insists on live music for his performances; that the Mark Morris Dance Group is an extremely diverse group of dancers who are of varying ethnicities and physiques (something that needs to happen more often in dance companies). In fact, the live musicians might have been the best part of the evening – rarely have I heard such strong interpretation of music in a dance event.

Yet his actual dances I often find pedestrian, with a limited vocabulary. The works are interesting to see once, to see what he can do with classical music that has no obvious dance rhythms, but I rarely want to see them again. Last night's triple bill was a great example of this – great music, a choreographer who obviously takes his craft seriously, so what am I missing?

Sport is straightforward; it's set to Satie's Sports et Divertissements and we watch dancers miming sports. Elizabeth Kurtzman's costumes look like colorful tracksuits. Here are the sports I saw: archery, shooting, swimming (backstroke and freestyle), synchronized swimming (the dancers are on the floor with their feet in the air mimicking synchronized swimming formations), tennis (replete with loud grunts as the dancers serve and swing their invisible tennis rackets). Sometimes dancers are pulled across the stage on a black cloth and those represent sports as well. There was rowing, skiing, sledding, and fishing. The ballet ended with dancers golfing. One dancer apparently misses his tee and mutters an expletive as the lights go down. This was cute ... until it wasn't. At some point one wants more imagination that what Morris presents onstage. Colin Fowler was the excellent pianist for Satie's Sports et Divertissement.

<i>Empire Garden</i> © Gene Schiavone
Empire Garden
© Gene Schiavone

Empire Garden (set to Charles Ives' Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano was a stronger work. The trio was played by Georgy Valtchev (violin), Wolfram Koessel (cello) and Fowler. The dancers are dressed up as soldiers, cheerleaders, NASCAR drivers, marching band players, and whatever else. The dance starts out as a sunny Americana tribute that looks like a Fourth of July parade. There's marching, there's saluting, there's even a cheerleader pyramid. But the dance takes a darker turn as the dancers sway deeply to one side, as if off balance, and then fall to the floor with a mimed silent scream, as if felled in battle. It's a confusing work but at least there was more to think about and chew on than Sport.

Thankfully the program ended on a strong note: Mark Morris' V (made in 2001) is a joy to watch. It's set to Schumann's glorious Piano Quintet in E flat major. The quintet was played beautifully by Fowler and the American String Quartet. The dancers start out in a "V" formation and then sway, skip, crawl and run. They end by holding hands and walking upstage. This dance isn't "about" anything except maybe music. The dancers look like they are responding to the beautiful melodies of Schumann's work. Morris does not overwhelm the stage with steps; V almost feels like a concert with dance accompaniment rather than a dance with musical accompaniment, and that's part of its glory.

<i>V</i> © Robbie Jack
V
© Robbie Jack

The Mark Morris Dance Group is a strong, hearty group of dancers, some of whom have been with the company for over 20 years. It was a joy to see the tiny. ferocious Lauren Grant who for so many years has played Marie in Mark Morris' Hard Nut. And at the end of the evening Mark Morris came onstage for a bow with his troupe, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and crocs. It's refreshing to to see a choreographer with so few pretensions. I just wish I actually liked watching his dances more.

***11