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Originally published October 5, 2012 at 10:38 AM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 1:55 PM

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Baryshnikov is one of the gang in Mark Morris' 'A Wooden Tree'

Mikhail Baryshnikov is just one of the Mark Morris Dance Group gang in the world premiere of Morris' "A Wooden Tree," playing at Seattle's On the Boards, Oct. 4-6, 2012.

Seattle Times arts writer

Performance review

Mark Morris Dance Group with Mikhail Baryshnikov

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; sold out.
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It took only a few moments to get past a sense of disbelief that, yes, that was dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov onstage at Seattle's On the Boards in the world premiere of Mark Morris Dance Group's "A Wooden Tree."

The second, stronger impression?

That Baryshnikov was just one of the gang, and clearly happy to be so.

"A Wooden Tree" — part of MMDG's "Back on the Boards" program running through Saturday — is set to the offbeat ditties of Scottish eccentric Ivor Cutler, and it's as funny and quirky as the music that inspired it. Morris, who normally insists on live music in dance, uses the late Cutler's recordings because, well, how could anyone possibly improve on them?

Most of the songs clock in at a minute or two, so each dance is necessarily brief. That doesn't stop them from being action-packed and loopy. "I Got No Common Sense" triggers a crazy-jig procession. "A Wooden Tree" depicts a family's growing excitement over a wooden tree "there at the back," with Dad, Mum, sister and brother joining each other, one by one, in arboreal enthusiasm.

"Little Black Buzzer" concerns a near-frozen telegraph operator (Baryshnikov) sending signals from the top of the world while a circle of maidens stagger-steps around him in a dot-dash-dot stutter. (The song's chorus is literally in Morse code.)

Each wrinkle in Cutler's tunes finds a counterpart in the movement, which is basically folk-dance subjected to whimsical mutations. Elizabeth Kurtzman's mix-and-match costumes (everything from a tam-o'-shanter to a bulky sweater vest) add to the zany festivities.

It's not just celebrity-gawking that keeps drawing your eye back to Baryshnikov. At 64, he's still an elegant glider of a dancer, with a gift, too, for poker-faced pantomime. His poor lonely telegraph operator ("My bum is cold and my face is white") has a sad-sack Buster Keaton touch ... especially when his battery goes dead.

"Back at the Boards" also included the Seattle premiere of "The Muir." Performed to Beethoven settings of nine Scottish folk songs, the suite strays from feather-light prancings and pratfalls toward pulses of melancholy.

Laurel Lynch — always a luminous teasing presence on the stage, not to mention a fine fluid dancer — leads a smitten Noah Vinson on a hopeless chase in "Sally in our alley." Dallas McMurray and Billy Smith, in "Cease your funning," wind up taking more interest in each other than the girl they're fighting over (Amber Star Merkens). Still, when all the flirting is done, a sense of loss takes over. The MMDG Music Ensemble plays the Beethoven admirably.

Less successful is "Petrichor," another Seattle premiere, set to Villa-Lobos' String Quartet No. 2. Its movement diligently reflects the texture of the music, but it feels like it hasn't gelled yet.

Morris' 1993 masterpiece, "Grand Duo" (to music by Lou Harrison), closed the evening and was magnificent: a never-ending kaleidoscope of movement, combining ritual gestures in ways both complex and mysterious. A buoyant, rigorous ensemble piece, it does include a few solo opportunities. Domingo Estrada Jr. made the best of his in a stunning passage in the "Stampade" movement.

Violinist Joanna Frankel and pianist Colin Fowler were equal stars of the evening, acknowledged as warmly as Morris and the dancers in the crowd's standing ovation.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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