Mark Morris Dance Group, Sadler's Wells, London<br/>The Sleeping Beauty, Royal Opera House, London

Morris men and women, upstaged by the music
Click to follow

For those convinced that contemporary dance is a mystery designed to keep them out, the work of the American Mark Morris offers a riposte. "I make it up; you watch it", is the beginning and end of his philosophy, though he might have added " ... and listen, too": in a world where good, live music seems to matter less and less, his dance shows are also a very smart concert ticket.

Across the two programmes Morris brought to London as part of a UK tour, we got scorching accounts of a bracing, the rarely heard Charles Ives Trio, a Beethoven cello sonata, Schumann's glorious Quintet for piano and strings, a clutch of Schubert songs, Gershwin's piano preludes, and Lou Harrison's rousing, raving Grand Duo, a sort of West Coast, late-20th-century Rite of Spring for violin and single piano, though it sounded like six. What's more, the quality is tip-top. Not content with touring and hiring whatever local musicians happen to be around, Morris brings his own. I have not heard a more thrilling account of Schubert's haunting Erlkönig, sung by mezzo Margaret Bragle with all the frisson of a gothic ghost-story, brilliantly giving us the voices of the father, the frightened feverish child, the ghoulish Earl King who wants to claim the boy's life, while maintaining an urgent melodic line over the piano's galloping hooves.

Oh, yes ... and the dancing. The Schubert set, Bedtime, is a perfect example of Morris's waggish style. What initially looks like a simple celebration of children's sleep turns out to be psychologically more complex, peering inside parents' heads to a place of permanent fear ("Sleep ... in your sweet grave!" croons one lullaby), and into the crazy, mixed-up imagery of children's nightmares. In Erlkönig, dancers hectically take turns to be the characters in the story, so that the boy sometimes appears with a beard and hairy legs, or the father is briefly a tiny woman.

Morris's taste for unorthodox bodies has famously characterised this company. It's less pronounced these days, though there are more fleshy thighs on view than in a chiller cabinet of corn-fed chicken. Just as surprising are the women's Methodist college hair-styles, the heavy landings, and the way Morris pilfers from a range of dance styles with no respect for context or original finish. It's bizarre, but often thrilling, to see the company's stockier, shaggier men whirling cheerfully through the flying jetés of ballet with all the rough vigour of farm hands.

Morris takes sly pleasure in subverting expectation in every way. In V, set to the seriously grand Schumann quintet, he dresses half the cast in big knickers and silky sky-blue smocks – a daft look on the men, yet their zesty commitment to the choreography's soaring latticework overcomes any mimsiness: it amplifies the energy, in fact.

After the disappointment of Morris's Romeo and Juliet last year, it would be good to report that he is firing creatively again. Neither of the new works at Sadler's Wells, alas, convinced me that this is so. Empire Garden, a response to the mad motorway pile-up of American themes that is Charles Ives's Trio, is the more memorable, but it's a weird, semaphored affair, busy where the music is already brimming over, to the extent that the dance becomes an unwanted distraction from a soundworld that is complete in itself. Yes, Morris's eclectic musical choices do often inspire him to sublime visual parallels. Some of them, though, are resistant.

A brief mention, though it warrants more, of the return of The Sleeping Beauty to the Royal Opera House, back, this time, for a cracking two dozen showings, which means a wide choice of Auroras. This recent gimmick-free staging – based on one from 1946 – has now properly settled in. No longer a museum piece, it's grown into a real beauty with warm blood pumping through it. See it to understand Russian high classicism – as much about proportion and colour (the Prologue is a delicious cake-shop vista of petit fours), as about spun-glass technique, though there's plenty of that, too.

Mark Morris tour details: www.danceconsortium.com. 'Sleeping Beauty': ROH (020-7304 4000) in rep to 23 Jan

Comments