Under the muscle, the power and the grace, what the Mark Morris Dance Group really wanted to do in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater last Thursday was play.
The concert was the third Maui visit for the modern company that ranks among the best in the U.S. A full house welcomed the dancers enthusiastically, attesting not only to Morris' choreographic genius and his dancers' prowess, but also to the savvy audience for dance that has developed on the island over the last decade.
The program featured four dances, three to live music by pianist Colin Fowler who was joined by violinist Michi Wiancko for the last selection. The composers ranged from Bach and Haydn to Samuel Barber and Lou Harrison. The seamless ease moving from classic to modern is a signature of Morris, whose sources of inspiration are limitless and who seems to like to color outside the lines.
His large troupe of dancers - Craig Biesecker, Samuel Black, Joe Bowie, Elisa Clark, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada Jr., Lauren Grant, John Heginbotham, David leventhal, Laurel Lynch, Bradon McDonald, Dallas McMurray, Amber Star Merkens, Maile Okamura, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Julie Worden and Michelle Yard - are more sinewy strong than elegantly lithe.
Spare, modern costumes brought flashes of bright color to the simply lit stage, letting the skin of their arms, legs and shoulders glisten as they caught beams of light. Morris is big on groupings. His focus can shift from solos and duos to putting 14 dancers on stage for the energetic "Grand Duo" that concluded the evening.
In the opening "Italian Concerto," J.S. Bach's music felt surprisingly contemporary. The five dancers were almost childlike at times, with comical wrist gestures, hip gyrations or moves that seemed borrowed from mimes.
In "A Lake," to a recording of Haydn's Horn Concerto No. 2, the dancers transformed the stage into undulating fluid movement.
Morris is known for making music visible, but he also uses his dancers to create kinetic sculpture gardens or landscapes. There were no swans in this lake, but the style was balletic as soloist David Leventhal dramatically emerged from the tangle of bodies, seemingly telling a story or painting a vignette, just beyond the audience's ability to grasp entirely.
Morris has displayed his fondness for things country and Western in his past concerts here. Cowboy themes found their way into "Excursions" to music by Samuel Barber. Variations on "Streets of Loredo" gave the six dancers room to ride their own air ponies in an impressionistic Western movie as they moved into and around a square on the stage. It was fun.
The concluding "Grand Duo" to Harrison's Duo for Piano for Violin and piano brought the concert to a thrilling conclusion. From the dark, sombre "Prelude," with an urban heavyness weighing the dancers down to the floor, the mood and movements gained energy and brightness, evolving through "Stampede," "A Round" and "Polka."
Clad like our primitive ancestors, the sinewy dancers melded into a modern tribe, their bodies sensual as they swirled into circles on stage, fists raised, bare feet stomping a commanding rhythm on the floor.
This was the second time the company had performed the piece on Maui. Seemingly in sync with forces of nature, the sheer number of dancers gave it an epic, primal sweep, especially when seeming randomness would meld into nearly perfect unison.
A sense of connection ran through this work - between the dancers, between the dancers and the earth, between the dancers and the audience. The evening ended on this high note, the audience on its feet to cheer the company that had made music visual, and let us play along with them.