There is a Brooklyn air in London: the New York based Mark Morris Dance group have come to town for five intensive days of shows, workshops and talks. Famous for his musicality and music knowledge – Morris has also conducted operas for several major venues – his lyrical style with a taint of grotesque and surreal images intrigued Sadler’s Wells public. Featuring three of his most recent works all rigorously performed on live music and signing, Programme A also presents Morris’ typical signature style: intricate relation music and movements, beautiful flowing sequences interspersed with small indicative gestures, plenty of references to dance history all served with a delicate ironic touch.

<i>Socrates</i> © Sadler's Wells
Socrates
© Sadler's Wells

As the perfect introduction, set to heighten our attention to detail, The Muir, danced on seven Scottish and Irish folk songs arranged by Beethoven, introduces a slightly meditative and pastoral atmosphere. Premiered 2010, it features three couples: ladies wearing fluffy dresses in primary colours and men in dark simple trousers and fluid shirts. Accompanied by the voices of Jenni France (soprano), Zach Finkelstein (tenor) and Johnny Herford (baritone) Morris’ dancers produce several slightly ironic flowing tableaux. Morris plays with elements from classical ballet, such as the structure – an opening ensemble part followed by several smaller groups sequences and an ensemble ending – and the steps – men and women performing the odd fluttering foot of the Dying Swan. Still, The Muir isn’t a ‘dancing honeymoon’. The group sequences do not feature grand duos but rather several trios, in which jealousy plays a role. A non-narrative piece, it offers tiny glimpses of narrative moments inserted in Morris’ typical choreographic elements. Simple lines and simple steps – in this case spring after spring after spring, but also simple walking – form a magnificent movement patterning that is executed with extreme musical precision, ensuring for a unique effect, quite different from other choreographers who play on bombarding the senses.

The second piece, Crosswalk (2013), on music by von Weber, features a different type of dynamic. Opening with the theme of falling and being run over, it then evolves into a myriad of references to dance milestones. For example, George Balanchine is referenced with a witty sequence of dancers in a line performing kicks, and the typical Balanchinean wide stance with the dancer leaning on one pointe performed in by men and women alike. Morris parodies Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story as three female dancers are surrounded by eight men in jeans and white t-shirts, seemingly forming a gang. There is a slight power struggle between them, and we see the group involved in a festive dancing competition, or one man running behind two girls on all fours. Other light ironic excursions in the otherwise lyrical piece are the opening sequence, in which the dancers head in different directions and two of them are run over, as the men recline on the floor like nymphs or mermaids. The beautiful patterning of all the dancers moving on stage as if in a tidal motion is particularly memorable.

Morris is mostly known for his opera work, and the evening could not but include his newest creation: Socrates. Erik Satie’s is a sleek composition for piano (Colin Fowler) and voice (tenor Zack Finkelstein) in three parts. Premiered this year, Socrates puts us in the middle of the agora, where he paints the portrait of the philosopher, his silhouette the most prominent within a group, backlit in one corner of the stage. In the indistinct streets, men and women wear similar short togas and walk in chained couples, which is possibly a reference to platonic love. The second part transports us to a place under a tree next to the river Ilissus, with the young and attractive Phaedrus, Socrates’ pupil: the dancers stream by in one continuous movement, running in one direction like the river. The last part recounts Socrates’ trial and death, the dancers performing a function between that of the chorus in Greek tragedies and actual characters. None and all represent Socrates, as one by one they fall to the floor in an agonising hemlock induced sleep. The whole piece is extremely touching and beautifully staged, with stunning costumes in soft pastel colours (by Martin Pakledinaz) that give the dancers a particular sculptural dimension.

Almost to prove that clean lines and simple steps can be as effective than any type of virtuosos’ trick (not that his dancers are not capable of them), Morris’ dancing bas-relief is not for the lazy eye. What look like casual differences,and odd ironic twists, are in fact carefully structured visual counterpoint. Deceivingly simple, his pieces magnify the relationship between music and movement that is sometimes taken for granted. The many references, particularly those to gender issues, make the pieces akin to caves yet to be explored. Morris’ stay in London is an intensive one: make sure to look out for related events around the city. 

****1