Review: Mark Morris Dance Group - Prog A - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 27, 29 Nov & 1 Dec 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 28 November 2013

Mark Morris Dance Group 'Crosswalk'. Sadler's Wells, Nov 2013. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Programme A: The Muir/Crosswalk/Socrates
Performance reviewed: 27 November

The unveiling of seven recent works not seen in London before by one of the biggest names in contemporary dance is a big deal. Mark Morris has a prolific output – with more than 150 creations to his name – and he nips back and forth across artistic boundaries with such regularity that, in his world, they have become permanently transcended. He conducts orchestras, directs operas and choreographs dance. In the second half of this programme, Morris combines a straight musical performance of Eric Satie’s symphonic drama, Socrate with his own choreography in Socrates. Made across a divide of almost a century, music and movement co-exist with a homogenous artistic integrity.

The inherent musicality of both the choreography and these excellent dancers is absolute, colouring all three works in this first of two consecutive programmes. Firstly in The Muir, visualising a selection of Celtic folk songs, as arranged by Beethoven, through Fantasia-style sketches, both literal in one sense and liberal in another. The song lyrics are partially enacted in the relationships between dancers- cute, funny and sad – as if these really are the romantic dalliances of young villagers after the Ceilidh in Innisfree or Brigadoon. But above any implied narrative their movement flows freely, scythed into the music like a seal pressed into molten wax. It’s the music that moves these Morris dancers and he conducts every body’s action as he might instruct instruments in an orchestra. This impression is even greater in Crosstalk, where the dancers waft as if notes on a musical stave, stepping laterally back and forth across the stage in repetitive movements, often as part of a lined formation. They float like ribbons or dart like zip fasteners, opening and closing as if pulled by a giant invisible hand.

While these pretty pieces are sizable and appetising hors d’oeuvres, the main event was Socrates, which had the rare distinction of being a danced work with surtitles, since the French words of Satie’s song (essentially lyrics taken from Plato) were translated into scrolling graphics above the proscenium. It was the only thing I didn’t like and sitting in the fifth row of the stalls presented the dilemma of looking up to see electronic dots flash by or giving an undivided attention to the sublime events unfolding on the stage. It was easy to choose the latter, since to do both simultaneously was impossible, although the temptation to look up was occasionally irresistible.

Morris makes the story of Socrates appear joyful. His dancers are unlike the usual standardised dance ensembles, giving the appearance of a group of everyday college kids who just happen to be able to dance magnificently. Despite the work being presented in the same tripartite structure of Socrate, representing a Portrait of Socrates , On the Banks of the Ilissius and the Death of Socrates , Morris’s choreography focuses on creating an overarching flavour of Athenian virtues at the beginnings of its Golden Age, emphasising the philosopher’s nobility under the greatest of duress. It starts with a single citizen but the stage is quickly filled by the whole fifteen-strong ensemble. Their formations echo the shapes and imagery of ancient Greek architecture, here the triangle of a pediment or there a painted frieze on a temple wall. It is all very sensitively done and sometimes way too subtle for me.

No one dancer portrays Socrates’ death (when he accepts the punishment of drinking hemlock instead of taking an opportunity to escape) but the group progressively act out the slow onset of coldness from foot to calf, to heart until all but one of them lays down to die. It is superbly – and hypnotically – achieved. The marathon of song by tenor, Zach Finkelstien (accompanied on piano by Colin Fowler) provided a continuing metaphor for Socrates’ enigmatic nobility. Morris is one of few choreographers who can get away with repeating a simple disco step forward and back with alternate legs, accompanied by a clicking finger motion, in a dance that illustrates a slow execution by poisoning. The addition of such simple everyday actions into an otherwise sophisticated cocktail of movement is what gives his choreography that unmistakeable zing.

Mark Morris Dance Group continues until Sunday at Sadler’s Wells (This programme is on Friday & Sunday, Programme B – Excursions, A Wooden Tree, Jenn and Spencer, Festival Dance on Sat:

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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