Mark Morris Dance Group, mixing pleasure and pain


Aaron Loux and Rita Donahue in a scene from the Mark Morris Dance Group performing “Festival Dance” during the Mostly Mozart Festival presented by Lincoln Center at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center on August 18, 2011. (Stephanie Berger/Stephanie Berger Photography)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic February 10, 2013

Sequestration, furloughs and other horrors: Washington’s specific fears and the nation’s general unease took shape in a dance by Mark Morris called “The ­Office.”

Of course, that’s just one way to look at the piece, performed this weekend by the Mark Morris Dance Group at George Mason University Center for the Arts. Its power was in its ambiguity. Dressed in small-town ordinariness, its dancers circled and snaked through spare, open folk-dance steps, answering the bittersweet but irresistible call of Dvorak’s Bagatelles for Two Violins, Cello and Harmonium, Op. 47. In the silence after each movement, a woman in a business suit arrived and escorted one member of the group into the wings.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Gradually, this process of elimination conjured an atmosphere of dread. Yet it was never oppressive. “The Office” left you stirred by its sadness, its air of mystery, its quiet beauty, and by feelings of empathy for the last woman left onstage, looking uncertain as shadows engulfed her, that were so strong as to be unnerving. I can’t get her out of my mind.

Did this dance address any defined subject, or many? No, and maybe. Or yes, and yes. (When Morris created it for a Croatian folk dance troupe in 1994, he had the escalating war in Bosnia on his mind, more or less.) Its subtlety allows for open-ended interpretations. “The Office” is everything you want in a work of art.

In his long and extraordinarily fruitful career, Morris has made whispering dances such as “The Office,” but also large-scale narrative works (“The Hard Nut,” “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”) and bold, muscular plotless ones (“Grand Duo,” “V”). But what binds his output is subtlety, which paradoxically gives his work its emotional, musical and visual force.

Subtlety is an aspect of the unexpected — important because I want to be surprised at a performance. I want to see something new. On this evening, I also heard something new, and it wasn’t just the Dvorak. Morris insists on live music — he always travels with his own musicians — and he abhors the predictable. So a Morris evening features the kind of wide-ranging and provocative encounters with chamber music that, say, a program of Merce Cunningham’s avant-garde works once offered in modern music.

“Festival Dance,” also on the George Mason program, featured little-known Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He could have composed for musical theater: At one point, amid the foamy good cheer of his Piano Trio No. 5 in E, Op. 83, I heard a jaunty little tune that sounded like something out of the musical “Oklahoma!” Morris responded to Hummel’s high spirits with a straightforward expression of joy for six couples. At times we glimpsed their private play, at others they gave us a romping barn dance. Every now and then one dancer balked at her partner, or threw up her hands in frustration; there were little snags in this vision of unity, which was part of the overall charm.

If “Festival Dance” was mostly pleasure and “The Office” was mostly pain, “Socrates” was an elixir of both. How unfair to have seen it only once. I’d like to view this piece many times over, for its miracle of calm while unfurling the ­story of the philosopher’s death. Though the dancing didn’t actually tell the story — that was left to the vocal text accompanying Satie’s spare piano composition “Socrate.” It was beautifully sung in French by Zach Finkelstein, and translated in surtitles above the stage. (The excellent Colin Fowler played piano.)

The dancing busied itself with the moral foundation of the story, the Apollonian correctness and courage of the doomed Socrates, sentenced to death for his beliefs. In their short, stylized togas in dusty hues, the cast of 15 dancers formed a chorus of serenity, recalling ancient statuary, shuttling around the stage with an expressionless, remote air. The movement was handled with a light touch, just as it was in “The Office.” But the emotions were worlds apart.

In “Socrates,” Morris showed us the balm of acceptance — and how that acceptance is made easier with kindness. Socrates’ story and the dancers’ actions came together in the last moments, where images of a fearless, willing embrace of death were mixed with those of tenderness — falling into one another’s arms, cradling. The final picture was a stage strewn with bodies, reaching heavenward, as if to levitate.

“Surely it is through enjoyment and suffering that the body dominates and binds the soul,” Finkelstein sang, voicing Socrates’ words.

No one knows this better than Morris. And now, so do we.

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