DANCE / Beautiful games: Judith Mackrell on the Mark Morris Dance Group in Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
THE fire which ousted Mark Morris from Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre resulted in the spectacle of several formally dressed, world-ranking singers performing in a cavernously functional sports complex - the company's replacement venue. Yet incongruous as the clash of high art and utility looked among the musicians, it was oddly apt for Morris' own choreography. Classical and casual, traditional and iconoclastic, steeped in sentiment and tart with wit, his movement lends his dancers the fluency of angels even while they look as if they might have strolled straight from the gym.

Morris' rarity is that he has no problem with the past - he takes what he needs from master choreographers like Balanchine or Graham, he sets his dances to some of the most revered scores in the classical canon. He also accepts the emotions and values that come with them - high romanticism, religious devotion, austerity or joy - and without nostalgia or limp imitation alchemises them into a very personal statement of his own.

Take New Love Song Waltzes set to Brahms' Neue Liebesliederwalzer. Performed by the likes of Thomas Allen and Felicity Palmer, this score would daunt or dominate most choreographers yet Morris behaves as if it was written yesterday. Brahms' rhythms become sharpened on the abrasive, unexpected edges of Morris's movement, while the passionate surge of the music grows more palpable as he gives it sensuous form. A repeating line of jumping, rolling bodies sustains a climactic phrase for what feels like a glimpse of eternity, a whirl of syncopated turns for all ten dancers amplifies the energy of the music so that it seems to fill the hall.

Responding to the sentiment of the songs, Morris is also effortlessly unsoppy. It's not just that his dancers re-write the lyrics in alliances that are gay and lesbian as well as straight - but that the whole range of love is open to them. They leap across the stage in full-bodied rapture, they crawl and squirm in stark physical need, they hang happily around each other's necks. So inclusive is Morris' dance language - from the classical step to the pedestrian shrug - that he can accommodate every mood. Looking at his dancers you recognise yourself in love.

So complete is this work that its companion piece Love Song Waltzes feels less charged, less full. But between the two are a pair of works which occupy very different Morris terrain. Mosaic and United, set to the spare architecture of Henry Cowell's String Quartets 3 and 4, is far more stringent and surreal with sharp angled rhythms and harshly isolated movements. Yet running through the music is a surprising gypsy wildness; just as the dancers seem to be locked into a tight nervy tension, Morris lets rip with a burst of gay folkloric footwork or a lush exotic ripple of the limbs.

Morris's dancers seem as game for excess, when allowed, as he is himself, and Ruth Davidson and Guillermo Resto are an equal match for Morris in the high camp trio A Spell. Accompanied by John Wilson's setting of four Shakespeare songs, Morris, in a Greek tunic and fat cherubs wings flits between a shepherdess and her love. Arching his eyebrows, kicking his heels and trailing his wrists Morris dallies preposterously with the songs pastoral prettiness. He also makes their wantoness wickedly plain. Where the bee sucks, there sucks Morris - planting long luscious kisses the full flagrant length of the lovers' bodies.

Performances of New Works at the Playhouse, Greenside Place (031 225 5756) Sat, Sun, Mon 7.30pm

(Photograph omitted)