Mark Morris Dance Group: Live review

Mark Morris Dance Group in Petrichor

Mark Morris Dance Group in Petrichor Photograph: Bryan Snyder

Mark Morris took a bow after his company’s triple bill at the Harris Theater on February 25. With a mustard-colored scarf draped over his shoulder, he swooped onto the stage, joined the 15 dancers in closer Socrates, took two of their 30 hands and bent at the waist. The second time, he stepped backward as he bent, displaying a flexed foot on its heel like he was an Elizabethan court jester.

There’s a mischief to Morris and it’s his secret spice. If missing, his dances would be saccharine despite their meaty scores. (Morris loves music dearly, that’s never in doubt.) It’s this roguish plainness that draws us in.

An example: In the fourth movement of The Muir, last June’s sextet set to Beethoven’s arrangements of folk songs from the British Isles, one man carries three women onstage in a row. Each emerges from the wings locked into a dry, shrunken imitation of the Romantic third arabesque from Les Sylphides. Like so they’re plunked down and, for a second, there they stay. (The 1816 lyrics: “Could this ill world have been contriv’d to stand without that mischief, woman, how peaceful bodies wou’d have liv’d, releas’d frae a’ the ills sae common!”)

But soon they’re moving again, as everyone always is in a Morris, always changing yet never rushed. Other choreographers may force-feed each minute ten times as many actions, but few can match the vibrancy of Morris’s stage pictures on the whole, even in moments like The Muir’s final few, where one woman kneeling alone drops her gaze as darkness descends. (Once again Nicole Pearce nails it with the lighting.)

The Muir is nine ostensibly simple little dances. Their moods are goofy-joyous to children’s-book scary. Their repeating motifs are complex enough to make you feel clever yet simple enough to be impossible to miss. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes sketch period templates, identical villager gear for the men and Romantic blue, green and red tutus for the women. In the year 2025, The Muir will be as old as the songs that inspired it are today. No matter how our eyes have changed then, everything about these dances will still make sense.

Just past its first birthday, Socrates reaches both nearer and further back: Satie’s cantata is from 1918, written for hire to translations of Plato completed by philosopher Victor Cousin between 1825 and 1840. As other critics have noted, it deftly quotes Classical art and architecture. (As other critics have also noted, the supertitles are far too high above the stage. I glanced up a few times, but when at a live performance I prefer to watch it, thankyouverymuch. The text is printed in the program. Read it during intermission.) Dancers land in lines crouched to decreasing degrees, creating shallow right-triangles that resemble half-pediments. They ball up into plinths to support others posed sculpturally just so.

In the third movement, tenor Michael Kelly sings, “Swans, when they know they are about to die, sing better than they have ever done.” Morris shows us for a flash first a line of Odettes, then a line of Bourne’s boy versions. The collision of past and present is masterful. Despite one spill by a dancer, another by Kelly and some asshole’s phone, Socrates progressed calmly and steadily to its high-modern death dance. A shout-out is in order for Martin Pakledinaz’s impeccable chromatic togas.

Petrichor, a women’s octet from October to Heitor Villa-Lobos, contains the most mysterious places. It’s named for the smell of rain on the ground and finds various ways to echo this wet-on-dry changing. One stage environment—lighting as for Socrates is by Michael Chybowski—is a hot, arid khaki on top of which the dancers’s fuschia and lavender costumes pop like desert flowers. The other is an inky darkness like the cosmos. Many arm movements ripple outward from an origin in the torso (proximal initiation in dance terms) then boomerang to curl in from the fingertips (distal initiation). There are a lot of inversions (upside-down movements). I think I saw a cartwheel. A staccato lowering of dancers’ arms to their sides recalls Ailey’s Revelations. Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet feels close at hand.

Oh you, Mark Morris—you’re such a clever fellow.

[node:222405 link=Mark Morris Dance Group’s new works trio repeats February 26 and 27 at the Harris Theater.;]

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)