There are pleasures to be had from Mark Morris Dance Group’s three-night run at the Paramount Theatre — but they’re awfully mild and decorous pleasures.
The colors are bright, the dancers graceful, the patterns pleasing, and the live vocal music (by Satie and Brahms) is superbly performed. Still, there’s little sense of being powerfully tugged into Morris’ world. And when you’re talking of dances about love and death that seems a little odd.
The evening is divided neatly in two, with “New Love Song Waltzes” (1982) and “Love Song Waltzes” (1989) comprising its first half and “Socrates” (2010) its second.
“Socrates” is the bigger news, and comes to town widely heralded. One London critic called it “the summation of Morris’s mastery of all he surveys,” while the New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay dubbed it “the most sensuously attractive new choreography that I have seen by Mr. Morris in more than 10 years.”
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Set to Erik Satie’s “Socrate” (a 35-minute “symphonic drama” for tenor and piano), it offers three glimpses of the Greek philosopher who was sentenced to death for corrupting the young men of Athens through his irreverent, questioning conversation.
Morris takes what you might call an atomized illustrative approach to the subject. There’s no single Socrates figure — or rather are multiple Socrates figures, none of whom stay Socrates for long.
In the first section, “Portrait of Socrates,” dance couples are connected by hand-held tethers. Their movement ranges from courtly to a nonchalant dragging of each other across the stage. Their postures often resemble the flattened profiles of figures on a Greek vase or bas relief. Curious springy crouches, while faced directly toward or away from the audience, reinforce the 2-D effect.
In “Along the banks of the Ilissus,” recounting an amiable river walk by the philosopher and one of his disciples, the dancers are no longer tethered and airier geometries take over. The movement grows more eccentric: arm-swinging walks in place, some oddball elbow wiggles. The closing line of the text (“My dear Phaedrus, you couldn’t have brought me to a nicer place”) is reflected in a group of seated dancers extending their arms outward before drooping their heads dozily downward.
There’s a stronger miming element at some points in the long closing “Death of Socrates” section, most obviously when the dancers draw their hands to their mouths at the point where Socrates drinks his (state-supplied) cup of poison. The closing image, best left as a surprise, has a certain power.
But the piece as whole feels more diffuse than “Kammermusik No. 3,” which Morris set on Pacific Northwest Ballet in late 2012 and which, in some ways, did the same thing better. Like “Socrates,” it made stark use of dancers falling to their “deaths” and of funereal black scrims filling the stage background in changing configurations. Still, the Satie score for “Socrates,” performed by Zach Finkelstein and pianist Colin Fowler, was impeccably done.
“New Love Song Waltzes” and “Love Song Waltzes” are lighter affairs: frothy gambols with occasional tart wit shot through them. The dances show Morris’ folk-dance roots (en route to becoming a world-renowned choreographer, Morris was a member of Seattle’s Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble) and gender-blind switches of partner are the name of the game.
“Love Song Waltzes” is a more fluid affair, like watching a beguiling calligraphy unfold in human limbs across the stage. It was done with springy, delicate perfection — and the MMDG Music Ensemble handled the two Brahms song-cycle scores just as finely.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org