Seattle-born choreographer Mark Morris has long been considered one of the world’s leading dancemakers, perhaps because of his unwavering focus on the basics over the course of his career.
“Love, death, sex — those are kind of the big ones,” said Morris, the winner of both MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, in a recent interview, “and so they continue to be.”
In his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Mikhail Baryshnikov and other art-world luminaries, the use of music — specifically live music — has also been integral to his work. So it makes sense that the show Mark Morris Dance Group is bringing to the Paramount Theatre on Valentine’s Day weekend should be inspired by song: both love songs and death songs.
Its funerary aspects will be delivered by “Socrates,” a major new Morris work that has enjoyed widespread praise. “The combination of restraint and emotion is profoundly moving,” one London critic noted. “If you weep, it’s not just at the death of Socrates but at the mystery of Morris’s artistic means.”
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The amorous portions of the show are provided by “New Love Song Waltzes” (1982) and “Love Song Waltzes” (1989), both performed to suites of the same name by Brahms.
The MMDG Music Ensemble will handle the Brahms score for four-hands piano and four singers. Seattle tenor Zach Finkelstein, accompanied by MMDG music director Colin Fowler on piano, will perform French composer Erik Satie’s “Socrate,” which is the basis for Morris’ “Socrates.”
Speaking from his Manhattan apartment during a snowstorm, Morris talked about the Seattle program.
“Socrates,” he noted, will have supertitles.
“I’ve never done it for dance before,” he acknowledged. “But the text is so specific and so nonrepetitive and it’s so wonderful that I decided to do that.”
“Socrates” has a long history with Morris. He choreographed the last movement of Satie’s work, “Death of Socrates,” in 1983, but never revived it, even though the music stayed with him.
“It’s a great masterwork,” he says, “that’s either ridiculed or unheard of or underappreciated. … I wanted to come back and do the entire piece justice, to really go deeply into the text and to make up a dance that is the same sort of humanistic point of view that the text is.”
The text, taken from the writings of Plato, offers a droll, affectionate portrait of the Greek philosopher, an anecdote about a stroll he took with a follower and a moving account of his death by poison .
Satie’s score unfolds at a measured pace, with no great variation in its tempo. Yet beneath its winding, hypnotic surface, deep feelings begin to stir.
The final movement, close to 20 minutes long, poses a particular challenge to musicians.
“It doesn’t repeat,” Morris points out. “It seems like it repeats. But nothing repeats. Figures repeat, rhythms repeat, words repeat — but nothing syncs up the same way ever. So it’s a very difficult piece to perform, believe it or not. It’s easy to get lost.”
One powerful influence on the piece was the death in 2008 of the choreographer’s mother, Maxine Morris, who encouraged her son’s interests in music and dance from a very early age.
“For a while — and I don’t mean to insult anybody, particularly my family, because it’s a great tribute — I was referring to the dance as ‘The Death of My Mother’ … I think of her every day, if not every minute.”
That said, “Socrates” is not, he stresses, an “I’m Scared to Die Boo-Hoo” affair. “And it’s not religious,” he adds. “It’s about these incredible thought systems, amazingly open. … A different kind of dogma that is much more humane, if you ask me.”
The Brahms-based pieces, naturally, are as far from death as you can get.
“New Love Song Waltzes,” the later Brahms composition, was the first that Morris choreographed, in 1982. “Love Song Waltzes” followed in 1989. Their difference in dance character reflects the difference between Brahms’ two suites.
“Certainly one is more purple than the other,” Morris says, “but that’s how the music goes.”
Brahms’ “Love Song Waltzes,” he notes, is “less stormy music” than “New Love Song Waltzes” is and the dance derived from it is “a calmer piece.”
As for the Valentine’s Day tie-in, Morris is all for it: “I know it’s super-corny that it’s Valentine’s Day, which I don’t really observe. But I kind of like it. I like the Whitman’s Sampler aspect of it … Everybody should buy a bottle of Champagne or whatever.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com