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Review: Mark Morris and Lou Harrison, a Large-Spirited Partnership


Aaron Loux, left, and Sam Black in Mark Morris’s “Numerator” at Tanglewood.

Christopher Duggan/Mark Morris Dance Group

LENOX, Mass. — Though born almost 40 years apart, the composer Lou Harrison and the choreographer Mark Morris, both from the West Coast, became one of the great artistic partnerships. Harrison, an artist whose musical style often turned to the Pacific Rim rather than to Europe or the eastern United States, died in 2003; this year is his centenary. I think of him as this nation’s equivalent to the Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928). Both were imaginative modernists with marvelous veins of melodic lyricism and strong appetites for folk material, thrilling sonorities and drivingly percussive rhythms.

Harrison worked with a number of choreographers (Jean Erdman, Merce Cunningham, Katherine Litz) in the mid-20th century. But since the 1980s, his music has proved a particular source of inspiration to Mr. Morris (born in 1956), who has made seven Harrison dances since 1987. In all of them, above all the enduing masterpiece “Grand Duo” (1993), Mr. Morris has proved an uncannily perfect dance companion to Mr. Harrison, especially in terms of large-spirited imagination.

At Tanglewood on Wednesday and Thursday, the Mark Morris Dance Group performed “Lou 100: In Honor of the Divine Mr. Harrison,” a program of four of those dances. It included the world premiere of “Numerator,” Mr. Morris’s dance setting — for six men — to Mr. Harrison’s five-part Varied Trio for violin (Xiaofan Liu), piano (Michael James Smith) and percussion (Nick Sakakeeny). (The score, often evocative of the Javanese gamelan, has also been choreographed for New York City Ballet by Jean-Pierre Frohlich, in his 2013 male-female pas de deux “Varied Trio (in four).”)

In the opening phrase of “Numerator,” the men, one after another, change before your eyes. As each slowly crosses the stage, he gradually rises from his stomach and knees until he is upright — like a cartoon of Darwinian evolution from quadruped to biped — and then suddenly arrives in a simple balance on one foot, quietly angelic, with arms swept back like low wings. The odd, anti-dance beginning and the transfigured conclusion marvelously exemplify Mr. Morris’s talent for dramatic poetry.


From left, Noah Vinson, Sam Black and Brandon Randolph of the Mark Morris Dance Group in “Numerator” at Tanglewood.

Christopher Duggan/Mark Morris Dance Group

Imagery and energy keep changing throughout “Numerator.” Here you’re held by geometries, here by body language of both ecstasy and ritual, here by arm gestures. Some of the simplest inventions are among the most enchanting, like a supported somersault (one man holds another’s parted hands, creating a hoop through which the second one turns forward and over). “Dance,” the fifth and final section, begins with a sensational explosion of six contrasting, rapidly pulsating simultaneous solos; but before you’ve had time to appreciate the individual dances, the men have begun to create one harmony after another, first in spatial terms and then in canonic sequences. In a final chain sequence, each one’s steps include a cartwheel.

The program’s opener was “Pacific,” made to the third and fourth movements of another trio, this one for violin, cello and piano. (Mr. Liu and Mr. Smith were joined by the cellist Francesca McNeeley.) In this work, the nine dancers, male and female, are in patterned flowing skirts of various colors; the men are bare-chested.

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