The king of simplicity

His first English show since the 1980s confirms Mark Morris as a choreographer of genius. What's so radical? Well, says Sophie Constanti, it's about dancing to music
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London has had one for over 15 years; regional versions have been presented in both Leicester and Newcastle; now it's Woking's turn for a Dance Umbrella festival. As the cultural highlight of the borough's Centenary celebrations, Woking Dance Umbrella has also scored a veritable coup in bringing the American choreographer Mark Morris and his company to the town's New Victoria Theatre.

For although in recent years Morris has become a regular and much adored fixture at the Edinburgh Festival, his troupe hasn't performed in England since the mid-Eighties. When, during the Umbrella seasons of 1984 and 1985, he appeared with just a handful of dancers at The Place Theatre in London, few people ascribed much importance to his work. Back home, Morris - then still in his twenties - had already been hailed a choreographic genius, but he was virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, and while his dances suggested more than average talent at work, they barely hinted at the massively gifted choreographer we began to recognise when Morris (and his company) relocated to Brussels between 1988 and 1991.

However, it was obvious even then that Morris understood - in fact, revelled in - the physical intricacies and musical mathematics of dance structure, and that he was extraordinarily adept at creating works which borrowed from a variety of techniques and styles - from ballet and American modern dance to the flamenco and Balkan folk dance of his own unconventional training - and that out of it all, he always managed to forge something entirely personal. But, above all, Morris is regarded as a supremely musical dance-maker, equally at home using scores by Bach, Vivaldi, a Tamil film soundtrack or songs by Michelle Shocked. And that far-ranging and masterly embrace of both music and movement was sublimely evident in the programme of four works with which Morris opened Woking's Dance Umbrella on Thursday night.

New Love Song Waltzes, set to Brahms's Neue Liebeslieder Walzer Op 65 (for fourhands piano and vocal quartet) dates back to 1982 and features 10 dancers who swirl, hover and brake to the intoxicating lyricism of three-four time. But neither the song cycle nor the physical action veers close to anything approximating a waltz: Daumer's texts and Goethe's concluding verse tell us love's wistful frustrations and saddest dreams, but they also harbour a sense of both stoicism and spiritual magnanimity, and this is what pervades the dance. You see men and women dancing alone, in groups, in heterosexual and same-sex couplings and as part of an altruistic chorus. You see them run, skip and suddenly yield to the music's lilting exuberance. And you see love as both private and public, temporary and eternal, but never casual or sentimental.

In the four-part Grand Duo, set to Lou Harrison's Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, the notion of community is more pronounced and isn't just a matter of adult co-operation. Morris conjures up a deep-rooted and powerful primitivism through simple, repeated rotations of fingers and wrists and instances of collective activity. Small tribes combine and dissolve, shifting across the stage in disconcertingly schematic blocks of movement, the groups poised for attack one moment, obediently assimilated the next, yet stuck in a fascinating evolutionary rut. But nothing prepares you for the work's finale - a collective outbreak of brilliantly crazed body geometry, the stomping, shaking dancers flinging their limbs, inverting their gestures and fitting together like the parts of an Escher puzzle that has come to life and cannot be stopped.

If New Love Song Waltzes and Grand Duo register as the finest works on this quadruple-bill, it is due to Morris's choreography as much as to the respective scores which are sung / played live. But the ways in which Morris fuses music and movement and makes the independent characteristics of each form lucid and arresting are also illustrated in Going Away Party and, perhaps, to a lesser extent in his 1992 solo Three Preludes to Gershwin's contrasting Preludes I, II and III (originally created to be performed only by Morris or by Mikhail Baryshnikov). Morris also appears in Going Away Party, a sort of day-in-the-life of three decidedly Mid-Western American couples whose love lives run parallel to the corny country and western lyrics of seven tracks by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. But after the hilariously strained merriment and idiotic smiles of the introductory group pose, Morris quickly emerges as the resigned loner.

At a time when multi-disciplinary, cross-collaborative work is too often a convenient device for masking bad choreography, the fundamental premise of Morris's work - simply dancing to music - appeals more than ever. And in his contemporary revival of that lost art, Morris is producing some of the best dance in the world today.

n Ends at the New Victoria, Woking, tonight (0483 761144); and then tours nationally