American Dance Festival
July 27-28

The American Dance Festival closes its 2012 performance season this weekend at the Durham Performing Arts Center, with two nights of the Mark Morris Dance Group, accompanied by the fine trio of the MMDG Music Ensemble. Compared to some of the ferocious, rowdy and ridiculous programs preceding it, this one is a rather mild-mannered—but it is such a treat to have live music for the dancing that one simply revels in the pleasurable experience.

The evening opens with the highly amusing 1982 dance, Canonic 3/4 Studies, set to “Piano Waltzes” by Harriet Cavalli, and various (uncredited) bits by other composers, arranged for solo piano (Colin Fowler). Is it possible to be gloomy in 3/4 time? I don’t think so. The good humor begins with a single male dancer cavorting alone; he soon is joined by eight more. They frolic through many permutations of step and turn to the lovely beat, before leaving him alone again. Morris excels at putting the heart into mathematical, musical studies of permutations and combinations, and this dance is no exception.

We see that same interest in the other works, especially the 2011 Festival Dance that closes the evening. The waltz, march and polka of Johan Nepomuk Hummel’s “Piano Trio No. 5 in E major (Op. 83)” are played delightfully by Colin Fowler, piano, Anna Elashvili, violin, and Julia McLaine, cello. As the 12 dancers make their sweet patterns in space, the women’s circular skirts froth to reveal a glow of red inside, indicating the heat inside the formality. Bits of various courtly and romantic dance styles going back hundreds of years mix and match with balletic lifts and turns, all unified by Morris’ sweeping arm curves, delicate footwork, interlacing lines and sly humor. The dance both begins and ends with brief tableaux of two dancers wrapped together in big hugs, further emphasizing unity and joy.

Preceding Festival Dance is the second piano-only work, Silhouettes, which shows off Morris’ penchant for mirroring and reversals in the choreography. The very interesting music is Richard Cumming’s “Silhouettes, Five Pieces for Piano.” Here Samuel Black and Domingo Estrada, Jr., apparently sharing one pair of pajamas between them, frisk through the many ways to make one out of two, or a whole out of two halves. It’s not challenging, but very pleasing, and one could look at Estrada’s bare and gleaming chest pretty much forever.

The meat of the evening to this viewer (my neighbor across the aisle fell asleep!) was Rock of Ages, a 2004 dance for two men and two women set to the “Piano Trio in E flat, Adagio, D 897” (“Notturno”), by Franz Schubert. The backdrop, glowing in lighting by Nicole Pearce, and the rich, subtle costuming in violet blues and bluey greens (Katherine M. Patterson), immerse you in the magic of the twilight hour, just before Venus rises. Its exquisite melancholy offers a fitting farewell to this season of the great American Dance Festival… farewell, until we meet again.