From Scotland to Socrates: Contemporary Dance Group Reaches into the Past

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Weber, Satie:  Mark Morris Dance Group, Sadler’s Wells, London, 27.11.2013 (JO’D)

The Muir
Dancers: Rita Donahue, Laurel Lynch, Dallas McMurray, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Michelle Yard
Soprano: Jennifer France
Tenor: Jack Finkelstein
Baritone: Johnny Hertford
Violin: Jessie Mills
Cello: Andrew Janss
Piano: Colin Fowler
Choreography: Mark Morris
Music: Irish and Scottish folk songs arranged by Ludwig van Beethoven
Costume Design: Elizabeth Kurtzman
Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce

Dancers: Chelsea Lynn Acree, Sam Black, Benjamin Freedman, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Spencer Ramirez, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson
Clarinet: Todd Palmer
Piano: Colin Fowler
Choreography: Mark Morris
Music: Carl Maria von Weber – Grand Duo Concertant, for clarinet and piano, Op. 48
Costume Design: Elizabeth Kurtzman
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski

Dancers: Chelsea Lynn Acree, Sam Black, Rita Donahue, Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Aaron Loux, Benjamin Freedman, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Maile Okamura, Spencer Ramirez, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Michelle Yard
Tenor: Jack Finkelstein
Piano: Colin Fowler
Choreography:Mark Morris
Music: Erik Satie – Socrate – Portrait de Socrate; Bords de L’llissus; Mort de Socrate
Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design and Décor: Michael Chybowski

It is not only when they are dressed in Grecian tunics for the final work, Socrates (2010), that the dancers of the American dance company, Mark Morris Dance Group, resemble those in Nicolas Poussin’s painting, ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. In The Muir (2010), the work that opens the programme, the dancers’ bare feet, their skipping, running and lightly performed jumps already seem to tap into something archetypally, essentially and eternally human while at the same time demonstrating what F. Scott Fitzgerald described in ‘The Great Gatsby’ as   ‘that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American.’ In the same way that Poussin included the musicians in his painting, the members of the MMDG Music Ensemble are very much present to one side of the orchestra pit. The sounds they produce dictate the movements of the dancers. The words of a song may be mimed; a high note may be matched by a corresponding lift.

Beethoven’s arrangement of Irish and Scottish folk songs provides the music for ‘The Muir’. Wearing long, tulle skirts of surprisingly deep shades of red, blue and green, the three women dancers show rounded figures that make the three men dancing with them (in grey, softly-flowing shirts) look slight. With unforced, organic, repeated gestures (among the most remarkable the men’s staggered fall, in time to the music) the dancers express sadness, longing and humour to words sung by soprano, Jennifer France, and tenor, Zach Finkelstein.

The music for Crosswalk (2013), the second and most recent work in the programme, is by Weber, and wordless. Movement seems suddenly unleashed as the dancers ceaselessly make their way from one side of the stage to the other, and back. In white T-shirts and black trousers, the men are first seen kneeling in the wings and at the back as if before the start of a race. Three women, also dressed for the gym (in bright orange), are in the centre. But if the men are athletes, their white shirts also seem to put choreographer Mark Morris playfully in mind of the ‘white’ acts of nineteenth-century, Russian ballets. He arranges the men, at moments, as if they were the Snowflakes of ‘The Nutcracker’, or the Swans of ‘Swan Lake, or the Shades (everything does seem to come back to them) of ‘La Bayadère’. And if, in this ironic and strangely thought-provoking reversal, the men are suddenly depersonalized representations which move as one, the women become protagonists. Not all the movement is retrospective (far from it), but it is of the Shades one thinks, again, as the dancers later zig-zag on to the stage in pairs with rigidly overlapping arms.

The words of Socrates are in French (the music is by Satie); they are translated into English in surtitles. On the stage below, the dancers’ solid and weighted forms are half-covered, half-revealed by their delicately dyed (terracotta, pale yellow, pale blue) tunics. In the first section two sections of this work based on the Dialogues of Plato (‘Portrait of Socrates’ and ‘On the banks of the Ilissus’) they move as figures on a vase, or in a frieze. For the third, ‘Death of Socrates’, they form two circles against a backdrop that is divided into light and dark. Much of their movement in this final section is mime (to words sung, again, by Zach Finkelstein). It is interspersed with the half-walking, half-running, terre-à-terre ‘dancing’ that could only come  from twenty-first century America, but which seems to reach far back into the past.


John O’Dwyer

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