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Mark Morris Dance Group

'The Office', 'Festival Dance', 'Socrates'

by Carmel Morgan

February 8, 2013 -- George Mason Center for the Performing Arts, Fairfax, VA

There’s no sense in hiding the fact that I’m a fan of Mark Morris. So, I view his works with a kind of bias, I suppose. He has a remarkable record of creating dances that I like. But I’m hardly alone. He seems to have legions of loyal followers who appreciate his genius, and many of them live in and around Washington, DC. Morris’s company, without fail, travels to the DC area on a yearly basis to thrill his devotees. While his company attracts the faithful, they surely also manage to pick up a few more enthusiasts each time they visit.

I wouldn’t have guessed prior to seeing this year’s performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group that my favorite piece on the program would be “The Office,” which premiered in 1994 (well before the TV program of the same name!). It struck me, as some of Morris’s finest works do, as nearly perfect. Morris has a great gift for surrounding himself with artists of the highest caliber, and so it should be no surprise that everything, from the music (Antonin Dvorak’s “Bagatelles for two violins, cello and harmonium, Op. 47,” played by Georgy Valtchev (violin), Kiku Enomoto (violin), Andrew Janss (cello), and Colin Fowler (harmonium), to the costumes (June Omura), to the lighting design (Michael Chybowski), not to mention the dancers (Chelsea Lynn Acree, Laurel Lynch, Dallas McMurray, Maile Okamura, Spencer Ramirez, Billy Smith, and Jenn Weddel), contributed to the practically flawless presentation. The program notes indicate that “The Office” debuted in Columbus, Ohio, and was first danced by Zivili, a professional ethnic dance company that performs exclusively the dances, songs, and music of the peoples of the Southern Slavic Nations. “Ah,” I thought upon seeing this information, “that explains the folk dance/communist feeling of the work.”

Seated on chairs, the dancers, wearing sedate shades of plum, peach, and brown in fashions from their grandparents’ closets or a Salvation Army store (practical, plain, uninspiring), appeared prim and yet deflated. Eventually they skipped in lines, executing folksy moves that should have been accompanied by joy, but their demeanor remained devoid of fun despite the beautiful, pure movement. A schoolmarm figure in a gray suit, with her hair pulled snuggly back, silently approached with a clipboard and, between brief interludes, with the power of her glance called forth the dancers one by one. The dancers who exited did not return. The remaining dancers continued their daisy chain hand holds, their sweeping kicks across their bodies, their joyless parade, as if merely passing time until they, too, were finally called and then disappeared. At the end, Maile Okamura sat in her chair, alone, unable to dance, and after a pause, the music no longer playing, the curtain fell. It’s sad to see folk dances turned into mindless labor, but this was precisely what was moving about “The Office.” Of course, I suspect a political message.
“Festival Dance,” a 2011 creation, did not entice me the way that the simple and resplendent work “The Office” did, nor did it indent my soul, but it cannot be called unsuccessful by any means. The music, Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s “Piano Trio No. 5 in E Major, Op. 83,” was gorgeous. The lighting design by Chybowski gave backdrops of springy emerald greens and peacock blue, reminding me of the sky and grass colors one would hope to enjoy on a sunny picnic outing. The stage teemed at times with twelve dancers. As in “The Office,” the dancers held hands not infrequently. They went around in circles like in the children’s game “Ring Around the Rosy.” When the piano keys got busy, the dancers did as well. Meticulously constructed choreography demanded that couples perform exquisite, high-flying lifts, but I could see, and even hear, the dancers’ effort. While “Festival Dance” possessed brightness and freshness, it also seemed a tad too cutesy now and then (heads knocking from side to side, arms crossed and entwined like out of a ballet), and the joy, for me, came too late in the work.

“Socrates,” which premiered in 2010, closed the program. It was appropriately heavy. In short draped tunics in pale pastels, rust, and gold (courtesy of costume designer Martin Pakledinaz), dancers gave life (and death) to the story of Socrates. Erik Satie’s “Portrait de Socrate, Bords de L’Ilissus, and Mort de Socrate,” provided the music, which was performed expertly by Zach Finkelstein (tenor) and Fowler on the piano. The surtitles projected above the stage were unfortunately at an angle too high for me to comfortably read, so I mostly ignored them, even though my French is extremely poor. Luckily, one didn’t really need the translation to understand.

The dancers, barefooted, entered from the same side of the stage repeatedly and swept across it multiple times, like the unfurling of a Japanese scroll, enacting the journey of walking along the river banks. Different dancers took the part of Socrates throughout, and sometimes all of them were him. For me, sometimes the movement too literally matched the what Finkelstein was singing about (when the word “altar” was mentioned, dancers had their hands clasped above their heads, when “cricket” came up, their bent elbows wriggled in front of them like wings). Yet this sort of sign language manner of storytelling managed to do its job. Operatically, with emphasis, all of the dancers lifted their cupped palms when Socrates drank the poison. Reflecting the demise of Socrates, all of the bodies on stage toppled slowly.

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