Many things distinguish Mark Morris from other modern dance choreographers: his eclectic taste; his left-field sense of humor; his ability to import folk traditions and pop culture references into a classical template; his appreciation of large body types. Most important, though, might be Morris' understanding of the music he uses. He runs the gamut from 17th-century baroque music to Romantic composers to modernists like Charles Ives. (One of his earlier pieces, Going Away Party, even featured the Western swing band Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys.) While most of his contemporaries work off of counts (as in, "5, 6, 7, 8"), Morris digs deep into the melodic and rhythmic structures of his music. He dissects each piece and isolates its components, creating a specific step to go with each theme or "inner voice." Sometimes the result can be incredibly bizarre and complicated; usually it's subtle, balanced, and faithful to the source material.
Such is the case with Empire Garden, Visitation, and V, three pieces that the Mark Morris Dance Group will perform this week at Zellerbach Hall to launch Cal Performances' fall season. Empire Garden features Charles Ives' "Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano," an incredibly tricky piece with polyrhythmic and polytonal structures, and places where each instrument plays its own distinct melody in its own key. "Mark went to great lengths to show that in the dance," said 28-year-old pianist Colin Fowler, who has worked with the company for four years. Fowler added that Morris' movements are so precise that his dancers wind up learning the music better than most musicians. You could hum any passage from Ives' Trio, or from the tricky Bartok String Quartet that Mark Morris Dance Group tackled in 2003 (for a piece called All Fours), and the dancers would know exactly where you were in the piece.
That kind of musical understanding results in a lot of exacting choreography. Empire Garden, which has the dancers dressed in "Seventy-six Trombones"-style martinet band uniforms, includes sections where three groups of dancers move in isolation, each hewing to a different "voice" within the score. At the climax of the second movement all the dancers form a line at the back of the stage and begin marching forward. The lights come up full, and the piano plays a well-known quotation from William Cowper's hymn "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood." "It's band-ish and military all at the same time," said Fowler. Visitation and V also provide unique sensory experiences: In the former — which uses Beethoven's "Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 4" — dancers wear layered shades of brown and forest green. In the latter — set to Schumann's "Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Strings" — they divide into two groups, one wearing blue tops and short shorts, the other clad in green tank tops and pants. Such beachy apparel might be the biggest creative license that Morris took with his well-marked, exacting choreography. Otherwise, said Fowler, even the tiniest body movements evoke something from the music. Mark Morris Dance Group performs Thursday, Sept. 17, (8 p.m.); Saturday., Sept. 19, (8 p.m.); & Sunday, Sept. 20 (3 p.m.). $38, $52, $68. CalPerfs.berkeley.edu