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Morris’ ‘Mozart’ sophisticated, sublime

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The Morris Dance Group performs "Eleven" at the Lincoln Center.

The Morris Dance Group performs “Eleven” at the Lincoln Center.

Associated Press

NEW YORK — It's been almost 20 years since Mark Morris choreographed a work to Mozart for his company. After seeing the new "Mozart Dances," let's hope that the interval will shorten radically in the future.

Two decades is too long to wait for another sophisticated, sublime jewel like this — particularly when it runs for only three nights as part of Lincoln Center's 40th Mostly Mozart Festival. It is hoped that future audiences will also benefit from the presence of pianists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki, who performed with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, conducted by music director Louis Langree.

Set to the Piano Concertos Nos. 11 and 27, with the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos sandwiched between, "Mozart Dances" functions as a triptych. Each of the three dances (titled "Eleven," "Double" and "Twenty-seven") could stand on its own, but repeated choreographic phrases and motifs echo throughout, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

And what parts — especially the first and second, which are largely split along gender lines, with the full company dancing the third. After an opening flourish by the men, "Eleven" belongs to the women. They are led by Lauren Grant, who is spared Martin Pakledinaz's unflattering costumes (sheer black shifts covering black underwear that chops the dancers' bodies into blocky segments) in favor of a more orthodox party dress, also black.

It has become a reviewing cliche to contrast Grant's diminutive size and Shirley Temple curls with her big dancing. All this is true, but it tends to downplay the fact that she is also a tremendously sensitive and nuanced dancer, capable of conveying a great variety of emotional subtleties through abstract movement.

Morris, of course, is well aware of her range; it is dazzling to watch her fly through tricky, delicate steps and quick turns, carried along by Ax's buoyant, lively interpretation of Mozart. She is like a fearless explorer, more enveloped by, than dwarfed in, the expansive State Theater stage.

Morris creates a sort of expansive intimacy (if such a thing is possible) that you don't expect to find on such a cavernous stage. He is helped in this by the warm lighting washes, designed by James F. Ingalls, that sweep across the stage, darkening or brightening the giant but spare brushstrokes on Howard Hodgkin's backdrops (one for each dance). And, of course, there is Mozart's music. It functions like a magical dollhouse whose seemingly small rooms reveal worlds of staggering depth.

Morris' dancers could well be the dolls come to life, or children on the edge of adulthood. "Double" is led by Joe Bowie, a sort of Peter Pan figure in long, structured coat (the other men are clad in knee-length pants and graceful, open-necked shirts). In one of the dance's most striking moments, the "boys" hold hands and run, so that their circle becomes a giant, rolling ball. Periodically, several of the dancers ease themselves to the stage. It looks as though the ball is about to summersault through the air, but then the dancers right themselves and their circle zooms off to another part of the stage; they are both playing and figuring out how to function as a community, one of Morris' most loved subjects.

Later, the women enter, spectacularly clad in long, diaphanous skirts and simple leotards. Still barefoot, they might be girls playing dress-up, or sylphs-in-training. They are irresistible, and gone just as quickly as they entered.

This mix of the elegant and the rough-and-tumble is an endearing sensibility, one that dims somewhat in the last section, which feels dutifully repetitive at times, and particularly when compared to its predecessors. But Morris throws in flashes of impetuousness, as when most of the company forms a neat aisle, only to have a lone dancer hurtle through it and hurl himself into the arms of the waiting Charlton Boyd. It's a surprising, standout moment, a sort of kiss blown to the crowd.

Let's hope it's not a kiss goodbye; big dances are expensive to present, especially in New York. We shouldn't have to wait another 20 years to see Mozart and Morris, together at last.

On the Net: www.mmdg.org