The Many Moods of Mark Morris

February 25, 2010

Three cheers for Mark Morris! That’s one cheer for each of the three pieces his company performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, all of which were characteristically thoughtful–and remarkably different.

The evening began with Behemoth, the only piece the musically-driven Morris has ever set in silence. If the downtown choreographers can do it, he seems to say, then I can too! The result is an introverted, slightly sinister work; its ever-shifting formations, propelled by the rhythms of the dancers’ footfalls, often evoke some kind of giant industrial machine. In one especially inventive (and haunting) section, several dancers appear to be dragged along by the sweeping leg of a central “leader,” only to be thrown to the ground when that leader slams down his foot.

I liked Morris in contrarian, music-free mode, but I have to admit that I was relieved when the second piece, Looky, opened with strains of Kyle Gann’s (awesomely whacked-out) piano music. And yet Morris, who generally insists on live music, was messing with us again: When the lights came up, we saw that the sound was coming from a playerless piano–it was canned live music. Looky is good silly fun, a commentary on the way we entertain ourselves. Dancers in black-and-white pajamas mime walking through art galleries and sculpture gardens, going to the ballet, getting drunk at a party. The grand finale is a big vaudevillian ensemble number. “Look at us!” the dancers all but say. “Looky (get it?) here!”

After a brief intermission (during which I spotted hot couple Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied in the lobby!) came the highlight of the evening: Socrates, a world premiere set to music by Erik Satie. Socrates is Serious Morris; in my opinion it’s on the level of his masterworks Gloria, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and Dido and Aeneas. The music’s lyrics–excerpts from  three of Plato’s Dialogues–describe the arc of the Greek philosopher Socrates’ life, ending with an account of his death. (Though the lyrics are sung in French, an English translation is projected above the dancers.) Morris’ choreography is essentially abstract, and yet it often mirrors specific phrases in the lyrics. Socrates and his friend Phaedrus discuss a tree by the bank of the river Ilissus under which they plan to lie and rest; we see dancers become trees, standing upright with their arms over their heads, and then watch them lie down. It sounds corny, but it isn’t; in fact, it’s poetic. Though sophisticated in its style and movement patterns, Socrates has a peaceful, orderly rightness about it–it seems, as Morris’ best works often do, simpler than it is.

Catch The Mark Morris Dance Group through Saturday, February 27 at the Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music.