Mark Morris Dance Group performances highlight gifts of company’s founder

Morris himself appears on stage at end of program presented by Sarasota Ballet

This is a scene from Gloria. Photo by Marc Royce, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

The audience members stood clapping loudly as the performance ended and the 10 gifted dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group formed a line across the stage. Then, a robust, gray-haired man sidled out to center stage, bowed, smiled and invited the dancers to join him.

Not a word was spoken, and yet with a quick, subtle shoulder gesture, an easy smile and an air of relaxed happiness, he conquered the moment, adding a dash of champagne to the afternoon.

I smiled to myself and answered the stranger sitting next to me. “Yes,” I said, “it’s Mark Morris.” She responded that she did not know he was here in Sarasota. But these are his dancers and his vision that we have been watching for the last hour and a half, so, of course, he is here.

It is Mr. Morris’s uncanny ability to communicate ease and happiness that I remembered from seeing him at Dance Theater Workshop in New York about the time he choreographed Gloria (1981), the last work on the afternoon’s bill. Set to Antonio Vivaldi’s glorious score (Gloria in D — RV589), this piece demonstrates Morris’ genius for absorbing and blending music and dance. He creates a feeling of joy that is all the more surprising since the ballet opens with the entire company lying face down and squirming around the stage like strange alligators.

One by one, the dancers rise to join in glorious dancing, as they respond to the voices in the choir, and the music itself, with the spontaneity of true emotions. But that is Mr. Morris’s gift: creating simple movements that define the happiness of being alive.

This is a scene from Jenn and Spencer, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo by Jamie Kraus from a Jacobs Pillow performance in 2014, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

The dancers in the group were listed together for the performances presented by Sarasota Ballet last weekend, except for Karlie Budge and Brandon Randolph. Those two worked their way through a punishing duet of challenging acrobatics and intense emotions in Jenn and Spencer, a work about a love/hate relationship. It is a darker side of Mark Morris that emerges in this piece, which is set to a gloomy and foreboding score by Henry Cowell (Suite for Violin and Piano) and played brilliantly by Georgy Valtchev on the violin and Ryan MacEvoy McCullough on the piano.

Words, choreographed in 20014, was both the newest work on this program and the opening ballet. I also think it was the most sophisticated and magical. There are not any actual words spoken or flashed on a screen, but there is communication from one to another among the group of 10 dancers.

This is a scene from a 2014 performance of Words. Photo by Ani Collier, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

The piece begins simply: Two girls are alone on stage. Then come a slight roll of a hip, a hand gesture and a little jump. The movements are done together or mirrored.

Next, a surprise: There is a large screen, similar to a blackboard, carried across the stage by flat-footed dancers, creating the impression of an Egyptian fresco. Each time the screen is transported to a new spot, the motion serves to introduce a new chapter: The cast of dancers and the rhythms change.

The overall structure and choreography of Words is simple, as it is based on Morris’s knowledge of folk dance, with an emphasis on groups of unison dancing. In fact, the choreography looks easy: The dancers jump and skip and mirror each other’s movements, but the connection to Felix Mendelssohn’s powerful score, Songs Without Words for violin and piano, flows as inevitably as a stream running down a hill.

This is another scene from a 2014 production of Words. Photo by Ani Collier, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

In addition, these multi-racial dancers dressed in their T-shirts and cut-off pants look more like a group of ordinary people than the usual company of professional dancers. However, they are a talented and trained group of dancers, and as they breeze through the demanding choreography, their joyous exploration of music, dance and space spills over into the audience.

Sarasota Ballet presented the Mark Morris Dance Company performances at the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota.

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