Mark Morris Dance Group, Socrates, Berkeley

Mark Morris Dance Group, Socrates, Berkeley

Socrates

Mark Morris Dance Group
Mixed repertory: “Behemoth,” “Looky,” and “Socrates”
Choreographed by Mark Morris
Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley
, Calif.
Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 2010

http://markmorrisdancegroup.org/performances/561

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Mark Morris Dance Group in a passage from “Socrates”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Mark Morris likes to give his dancers a workout, and his audiences, too. The program his company performs in Berkeley for this short engagement ripples with energy, earnestness, and (it is sad to report) good intentions. After each piece on opening night (all West Coast premieres), his dancers lined up for their curtain call, panting and shimmering with sweat, as Morris devotees, who customarily leap to their feet in effusive applause, remained seated, many of them exchanging puzzled glances (or sighs of relief, frustration, and confusion). It was not an easy evening for anyone.

As one of the dance world’s most unpredictable choreographers, Morris seems to delight in experimentation. And that is pretty much what he serves up on this bill: three unrelated pieces, each offering one aspect of the artist’s oeuvre without entirely representing his genius. The works span 20 years, with the concluding piece, “Socrates,” heralding his return earlier this year to the challenging music of Erik Satie. Though presented as finished dances, they each have a work-in-progress feel that doesn’t quite work overall.

The opening opus of this program, “Behemoth,” is the most difficult to digest: it has no score, danced to nothing more than the smack of bare feet on the floor, the occasional in-unison clap of hands, or the percussive thumps of heels (in addition to the impromptu hacking cough or chiming of a cell phone from the auditorium). It’s not quite silence, as many critics have mischaracterized it, because you can hear the dancers breathing, seemingly counting time with each exhalation. Morris staged “Behemoth” in 1990, during his épater les bourgeois phase in Brussels, and its length—it runs nearly an hour—and lack of cohesion typify a kind of thumbing-his-nose at the expectation of what a dance without music ought to be. Some have concluded it’s an homage to Merce Cunningham, whose works require an internal metronome, but it feels more like an extended exercise at the barre.

It opens with the company arrayed on the empty stage, standing in varying angles and spread apart. One dancer then lifts his leg, as if about to complete a grand battement, followed by the others. This goes on for some time, with various movements mimicked or performed separately. Then, another dancer steps forward, clad in an outfit straight out of “Star Trek” (costumes by Christine Van Loon, who included mirror-like insignias to each leotard top that glint annoyingly throughout the work). This latest dancer commands the group’s attention, seemingly stepping into the role of leader. “Ah,” you think, “It’s Captain Kirk, bringing everyone back to the Enterprise”–a starship being the titular behemoth, perhaps. But no such luck. The rest follow his steps, gliding to and fro in complicated patterns. Kirk slips back into the corps. Others jump in, performing more passages, some of them excruciatingly slow (kudos to Dallas McMurray, who rotates 360 degrees on one leg, the other bent at the knee, in what seems like a time-lapse clip of a blade of grass bending toward the sun). More leaders emerge, then melt back into the ensemble. There is very little touching, except for some coupling that looks erotic but is presented dispassionately, like starfish copulating. Blackouts suggest transitions, but ultimately they, too, contribute to that same dank feeling of the laboratory. There are a lot of steps and associated hand movements; it’s like watching cell division under a microscope. Nevertheless, the piece is a tour de force for the dancers, who give their all in a triumph of discipline and trust and unaffected ensemble work. It’s a pity that their extreme concentration and focus on Morris’s inconclusive choreography result in head-scratching and yawns from observers.

The program’s second work, “Looky,” is at least a crowd-pleaser, and it shows that Morris is wise enough to leave ‘em laughing before the intermission. Set to Kyle Gann’s tune-laden “Studies for Disklavier,” the slapdash choreography has a giddy, drunken feel, as if it were conceived at a piano bar on a booze-fueled Friday night (Gann’s music is, in fact, performed digitally, a baby grand upstage right faithfully executing his five Tin Pan Alley-tinged studies). But as with any alcohol-tinged inspiration, it goes too far, the satire devolving into shtick. It starts out seriously enough—dancers file into some hushed space, presumably a museum (the piece was commissioned in 2007 by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art) clad in a grab-bag of artsy black-and-white garb from past Morris dances like “Hard Nut” et al., casting critical gazes upon some unseen work—but the movement descends quickly into one of Morris’s lowbrow specialties, sexual innuendo. The leering and double-takes are funny enough, but they become tiresome as the work progresses, from hushed gallery to Old West barroom to dance studio and back to the sterile, sculpture-laden hall of some landmark to high art. The various sections flow, vignette-style, as if projected on a screen (Michael Chybowski’s clever lighting helps convey the fluttering silent-movie motif). Morris overemphasizes the limited comic potential of each section (notably in the slow-motion dissection of a stage brawl, the punches and head-butts and backward falls exaggerated in an overlong how-to demonstration). Some have called “Looky” Morris’s tribute to Jerome Robbins, who gave New York City Ballet “The Concert” in 1956, a genuinely funny and original send-up of pretentious concertgoers. (San Francisco Ballet recently reprised the Robbins piece; read the review here.) But if that’s the case, what Morris gives us is less a tribute than a rip-off. Thank goodness it ends abruptly and quickly, and you’re glad it’s over, not quite knowing what it all means in the first place, other than what might be gathered from the ambiguous title of the work (Peep show? Circus shill? Come-on? Who knows?)

“Socrates,” the most anticipated work on the program (set earlier this year to a curious composition by Erik Satie), makes up the third part of the Zellerbach bill. Despite its neoclassical look, it does not fulfill the hope for a repeat of a masterpiece like “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” which Morris choreographed to Handel’s eponymous oratorio to beautiful effect in 1988, cementing his place among important American dance-makers. Perhaps the miscalculation here is in the choice of music: Whereas Handel’s music is vibrant and spirited, Satie’s is fey and ephemeral. The latter composer wrote a pinched-sounding “symphonic drama” that can be reduced to a tenor accompanied by a piano, and it is this version (performed by tenor Michael Kelly and pianist Colin Fowler) that Morris has employed to create a fairly routine dance about three iconic elements in Socrates’ life: a paean to his life by an admirer; a pastoral gathering next to a river; and his execution via hemlock in prison.

“Routine” is a harsh word to apply to a choreographer of Morris’s stature, and yet there are few other neutral choices for the steps he has given his dancers here. For the most part, “Socrates” is one-dimensional: a chorus of Greek-urn figures wandering back and forth across the stage, arms bent and palms flattened in right-angle arrangements, interrupted by a group of dancers who rush in, moving their arms and legs in geometric semaphores to punctuate the lyrics (projected, in English translations from the French, overhead). Morris has acknowledged that the combination of difficult music, elaborate choreography, and supertitles is the “complicated version” of viewing this piece. But for all of its refinement and formal, classical look, he offers little to stimulate viewers (beyond Martin Pakledinaz’s scanty tunics, which reportedly thrilled Morris because he could glimpse his dancers’ bare behinds). Much of his movement is literal and earthbound (for instance, when the “cup” of poison is mentioned, several of the dancers cup their hands and parade across the stage, signifying Socrates’ demise). Morris has a reputation for setting beautiful steps to music, and you want to see that in “Socrates.” But even in the work’s poignant death scene, one dancer flits about, detracting from the finality of the score. You want to swat him down, to experience something pure and cathartic, but Morris’s impulse is to focus your attention on the fly at a funeral. It’s a perverse way to end this troubled piece.

From the works on display here, it’s clear that Morris follows his own muse. Moreover, he has found patrons who don’t mind indulging his creative fancies. At times, when he’s not playing the enfant terrible, he makes inspiring, memorable dances. This particular program is evidence of his bad-boy tendency, in spite of its refined finale. At the final curtain call on opening night, Morris skipped in from the wings, acknowledging the polite applause with his signature curtsy bow. He then turned around and bowed deeply in gratitude before his company, his derriere now front and center. Were his jeans a size smaller, he might have been mooning his public. The implied metaphor was apt. After witnessing these works, many in the audience may have wondered if Morris weren’t doing just that.

John Sullivan