Mark Morris Dance Group, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

And so it came to pass. It's still true that a night with Mark Morris guarantees the most eclectic, high-class concert money can buy. And it's still true that Morris's dancers embrace many different body shapes, sizes and colours. What's more, he still springs surprises, digging up music you didn't know existed, and treatments you'd never imagine. Take, for instance, his "Tamil Film Songs in Stereo" pas de deux - inspired by a tape he bought from a street vendor in Singapore. You might expect something curry-flavoured, but what transpires is a seven-minute New York comedy-drama about a camp dance teacher and his uninspired student. The soundtrack features a chorus of tinny-voiced Tamil children having a singing lesson. As they plough through the Tamil equivalent of doh, re, mi, the arrogant ballet master on stage strikes a series of nostril-flaring poses which gradually accelerate into a wildly gymnastic display, which the student copies with varying success, studded with sight gags worthy of The Simpsons. I only wish the piece had been twice as long.

No sooner has Morris got you laughing than he switches into serious mode. All Fours, a newish work, uses Bela Bartok's String Quartet No.4, magnificently played by Morris's own-brand travelling ensemble. Here the choreographer turns musicologist, picturing the dense structures of Bartok's score in ways that make it vibrantly accessible. Suddenly those scurrying strings are shuffling, praying Orthodox figures, a memory of the old east-European world that lies beneath Bartok's modes. In the mysterious third movement, two couples engage in a dialogue of film-noir intensity - you almost expect a murder. By the end the achievement leaves you breathless, yet on another level, Morris has merely responded to Bartok with his usual, alone-in-the-bathroom freedom to what he hears.

The evening had opened on another of Morris's off-piste musical explorations, but with less success. Somebody's Coming To See Me Tonight takes its title from a selection of pre-Civil War parlour songs written by Stephen Foster - coy, sugary numbers that the girls in Little Women might have crooned round the piano. I imagine American audiences have a congenital fondness for these songs - they're part of their history. But to my ears the music is four-square and second-rate, and fails to bring out the best in Morris's imagination. Nevertheless, the evening signed off on a romping high with the kidney-slapping energy of Lou Harrison's Grand Duo for Violin and Piano. As always, the company's dance standards are formidable. But even with your eyes shut, this one's worth the money.

Birmingham Hippodrome (0870 730 1234) Tues & Wed; The Lowry, Salford (0870 787 5790) Fri & Sat; tour continues