NEW YORK -- Mark Morris' new dance, "Violet Cavern," is sprawling, flawed, overlong - and entirely exhilarating.
The piece opened Tuesday night's performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which also saw the New York premiere of "All Fours." The season marks the choreographer's 20th BAM engagement.
It was also his 600th consecutive performance to live music, an impressive mark considering many companies save live accompaniment for special occasions.
Perhaps the most musical of modern choreographers, Morris has cast a wide net this season, working with Bela Bartok's String Quartet No. 4 for "All Fours" and a commissioned score by adventuresome jazz trio The Bad Plus for the world premiere.
"All Fours" is quintessential Morris, music interpreted through modern dance with exquisite control and wit; his choreography does not follow the music, but embodies it through the repetition and variation of phrases.
The superb company is more than up to the task, including Bradon McDonald, Craig Biesecker and perennial standout Julie Worden, whose grounded articulation is tailor-made for Morris' choreography. Whether balanced on one leg or leaping through the air, there is a stillness at her core that draws and holds the eye.
Both austere and lush, the dance juxtaposes militaristic group work with partnering for four dancers (McDonald, Biesecker, Worden and Marjorie Folkman), whose attempts at lasting contact are poignantly set against Bartok's complex onslaught. As this quartet is ruled by human desire, the company moves mechanically, supplicants to a higher power.
In one section, McDonald pursues Folkman in a figure eight pattern around Biesecker and Worden, as the two slowly advance toward the front of the stage. McDonald curves around Worden, locking onto his arm and restraining him, while Folkman leaps past Biesecker only to freeze, caught in his arms. The pattern repeats, the audience held in Morris' hands as surely as Folkman is held by Biesecker.
"Violet Cavern" is another beast entirely, messy and a bit unsure of itself. Made for 15 dancers and about an hour long, the dance unfolds in horizontal movements beneath sculptor Stephen Hendee's set, a cloud of white rectangles floating above the stage in dense layers. Bisected by black lines like cut glass, the rectangles catch Michael Chybowski's lighting design as it varies in color and depth.
Music and dance are again closely aligned, but the improvisational nature of jazz muddies the relationship. At one point, a clot of dancers lies in the middle of the stage. As percussionist David King builds a static mass of dissonance, the dancers push themselves upright only to fall back, while others cling fiercely to their partners' outstretched legs. When a staccato drum burst breaks the tension, you almost expect Hendee's "cloud" to yield a downpour.
The floor work does not seem as fully realized as much of Morris' choreography. But like all of "Violet Cavern," it is buoyed by a strange energy, much like those moments before a summer thunderstorm.
At curtain's close, the dancers crowd the stage, an army of whirling dervishes. All but two of the spinners drop to the stage. A few in the center sit up and throw their gazes heavenward, as if not quite sure what they've been through.
The audience, perhaps, wasn't either. But what a ride.
Mark Morris Dance Group performs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through June 12.
On the Net:
Mark Morris Dance Group: www.mmdg.org
Brooklyn Academy of Music: www.bam.org