Mark Morris Dance Group presents "Mozart Dances" at Seattle's Paramount Theatre with Seattle Symphony May 1-3, 2009. A review by Seattle Times arts writer Michael Upchurch.

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Dance Review |

Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Mozart Dances” is a light-footed, delicate piece of work — which isn’t to say it’s not rich with strengths and contradictions.

Indeed, it has a shadowy center from which its festivities radiate outward, as its intricate waves and layers of action create busy depths onstage.

As for subject matter, it sometimes feels — especially in the key movement of its central act — like a vision of Death going on the prowl (a dandified Joe Bowie, with Noah Vinson as his young prey) while all the rest of life goes its merry way.

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Dating from 2006, it dispenses with the campy touches of Morris’ early work. You won’t find in it the slapstick moments of “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” Morris’s 1988 work, performed here last year. What you will find, as sharp as ever, is Morris’ fine instinct for matching movement with musical score, as dance-action springs from the pauses and accents of melodic motif.

The music, in sequence, is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, Sonata in D major for Two Pianos and Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major — with the sections of the dance respectively titled “Eleven,” “Double” and “Twenty-Seven.”

“Eleven” briefly introduces the men of the company, before turning matters over to the women. Lauren Grant is the eye-catching soloist here, taking turns onstage with a chorus of females. The solo/chorus pattern complements the music beautifully.

Still, there are hints of something amiss, as Grant brings focus and urgency to what seems mostly a frolicking process, and successive corps dancers liquidly lapse to the floor, only to be helped back up (resurrected?) into action.

In “Double,” the stakes are raised higher. Bowie, a veteran with MMDG for more than 20 years, capers into view in black cutoffs and raggedy tailcoat, alone at first — and enjoying a glorious moment. On being joined by the rest of men (wearing green), he becomes a sort of Artful Dodger, leading them in some kind of game, complete with sudden-halt mimings of What’s that? Who’s there?You mean me? The motion stays fluid except for fleeting staccato stances of (feigned?) agony. Then it’s on with the dance.

In the slow central movement of the double sonata, the drama is at its starkest. The men form a circle that’s far from stable. It sags, it mutates, it swallows itself, then regroups. The beauty of pattern and the shock of broken pattern are both given their due. And the dancer who seems to be most at odds with his peers is Vinson — who, in one of several startling moves, is thrust, almost like a playground swing, up into the air, out of the group.

In the final movement of “Double,” the women re-enter, forming a protective circle around Vinson, while Bowie stalks its perimeter, trying to get in.

“Twenty-Seven” brings all the men and women together in two mixed-sex “flocks” dressed in white, in a dance dominated by an impatient, perhaps defiant “Come on” gesture. The whole evening ends on what might be a note of harmonious disconnection — buoyant, even jubilant, yet not without misgivings.

In a dance-work that seems so much be about ephemeral pattern and pursuit, painter Howard Hodgkin’s mostly monochrome scenic designs — huge brush strokes like something out of sumi-e calligraphy — are a perfect fit. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls makes the most of them, with an everchanging wash of mood-altering colors.

As for the Seattle Symphony under Stefan Asbury’s baton, with pianist Garrick Ohlsson at the keyboard (joined by Yoko Nokazi in “Double”), they deliver a performance of such fine-spun lightness and transparency, so utterly reliable in its rightness, that you hardly notice it — except as an agency of the dance. They, as much as the dancers, were the ones who got the standing ovation Friday night.

Michael Upchurch:

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