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This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on March 23, 2006.

March 23 (Bloomberg) — It’s the 25th anniversary of the Mark Morris Dance Group, and celebrations have been lavish. The centerpiece is the generous survey of the celebrated — and still controversial — choreographer’s repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Yet the two works that made their New York premieres last night, “Cargo” and “Candleflowerdance,” are modest both in scale and expression. Created in 2005 and set to jazz-inflected scores from the 1920s, they are related examples of what big talent might come up with in a lull.

Darius Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde” accompanies “Cargo.” The sultry, witty music was created for the avant- garde ballet Suedois (choreographed by Jean Borlin), and Fernand Leger’s stunning faux-primitive decor matched a libretto based on African creation myths.

Morris, 49, is more plainspoken. He took his inspiration from another kind of community given to magical belief: the cargo cults that arose in the early 19th century on the islands of Melanesia in the South Pacific.

Practitioners believe that a golden age is coming in which ancestral spirits will send worldly goods to deserving have-nots if their faith is intense and their rites correct.

Pole Dancing

Nine dancers, clad in the simplest possible underwear and given to simian-style locomotion, discover three, eight-foot wooden poles. The objects invoke awe, fear and insatiable curiosity.

Members of the little tribe swing the poles toward one another, whirl with them, turn them into bars that pinion bodies into place, climb them, bite them, make them weapons and fetishes.

Periodically, the poles are held at either end by a pair of stalwart bearers, while a smaller dancer hangs from the horizontal rack like a piece of dead game.

These are the most startling images of the piece, and they serve as warnings. Suddenly, the three poles fall unchecked toward one man. The victim collapses, motionless; the others flee, like a flock or herd dispersing at the first sign of peril.

“Cargo” isn’t a big, ambitious piece that blasts you out of your seat, or one so deep that it pierces your heart with pain or delight. But if you saw it without knowing who had made it, you’d know it was the work of a big talent.

Street-Corner Shrine

The same is true for “Candleflowerdance,” a sextet set to Stravinsky’s “Serenade in A.”

The pianist, Steven Beck, is placed onstage, along with a weedy bunch of flowers in a jar and a cluster of candles shrouded in glass holders. The objects are typical of the unsophisticated memorials the public creates when tragedy strikes. A lighted rectangle at center stage, where the dancers will gather, might be the footprint of a destroyed building.

Dressed like pedestrians, the dancers congregate in the marked space and gesture skyward, their pointing index fingers suggesting candle flames.

At first, their moves are disjunctive. Anonymous bodies in a crowd, they hardly seem to recognize each other’s existence. They come and go at random, passersby on a busy street.

Slowly, certain repeated gestures begin to unite them. They pair up and lean toward each other to form bridges with their arms. They mime weeping. They fall — unexpectedly, with soft thuds.

Dancing in Dark

Gradually, the dancing grows more fluid and energetic. At moments, it’s even playful. Then the mood darkens for good.

One body hurtles through the air into another’s arms. The desperate flight is repeated with a different, awkward twist. At last, the group huddles together, a mass of soft flesh seeking comfort in the face of calamity.

The piece is dedicated to the late writer Susan Sontag.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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