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Mark Morris's Neoclassicism

Socrates, Mark Morris Dance Company (photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of GMU Center for the Arts)

The success of a Mark Morris choreography often seems linked to his choice of music: irresistible with Handel, the Schumann piano quintet, Mozart, Purcell, but less so in other cases. The mixed program brought by Mark Morris Dance Group to George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday night fell out along similar lines. In The Office, from 1994, three men and three women clad in semi-casual business attire (costumes by June Omura) wait for a severe, clipboard-wielding woman to call them into an office offstage -- are they being interviewed for a job, or being downsized one by one? Beginning with all six, and decreasing in number after each section of music, their movements incarnated the flight of fancy in response to the torment of waiting. The whimsical character of Dvořák's Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium (op. 47) captured the sense of minds wandering.

Morris's insistence on having live music to accompany his dancers extended in this case to having a harmonium in the pit (played by the versatile and talented Colin Fowler, with unexpected and pleasing results), even though Dvořák specifies that the part could be played on a piano instead. Flavors of square dance and tap crept into the choreography, and the canon of violin and cello in the fourth movement was reflected in the echo of a single dancer who mirrored two preceding dancers in the same way. By comparison, the newest choreography, Festival Dance, premiered in 2011, was set to music that seemed far less inspired, Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Piano Trio No. 5 in E major (op. 83). Some motifs in the dance came directly from the music: a tiptoe run that went with a skittering upward scale in the piano (the demanding part quite a workout for Fowler), and a staccato theme that gave rise to a funny up-and-down bobbing motion. The most beautiful part of this dance was a more ballet-oriented look, beginning with the opening pas de deux, full of graceful lifts, while other popular hints of the waltz or music theater seemed slightly hackneyed.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mark Morris Dance Group, mixing pleasure and pain (Washington Post, February 11)

---, Mark Morris designs a dance after he picks his music (Washington Post, February 2)
Still, nothing prepared me for the austere beauty of Socrates, Morris's classical response to Erik Satie's Socrate, a setting of excerpts from three of Plato's dialogues, especially focusing on a portrait of the life and death of his teacher, Socrates. The score was an extremely influential one, arranged for two pianos by John Cage (also for a choreography, by Merce Cunningham, later reworked into Cheap Imitation) and having elements of simplicity and repetition that foreshadow minimalism later in the century. Although Satie intended the work to feature four singers, preserving the sense of dialogue, the parts are all intentionally uniform in range, making a performance by a single voice (here the sweet high tenor of Zach Finkelstein) not only possible but satisfying. In the same way, Satie's original version for piano only seems stronger than the orchestration he made later, especially as performed here, with steady tempi and an intentionally rather plain, almost affect-less approach. The choreography, featuring a large cast of dancers in pseudo-Greek short chitons (Martin Pakledinaz), often seemed like group athlete portraits on Greek vases springing to life. The movements did not necessarily narrate Satie's French text, until the end where various parts of the final day of Socrates, drinking the poison hemlock and dying, are played out by individual dancers and the entire group. The overall effect was somber, hypnotic, and unforgettable.

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