Mark Morris Dance Group, review

Sadler’s Wells, London

American choreographer Mark Morris is unpredictable. From romping in woolly socks to the surreal comic songs of Ivor Cutler, to the clean surface and mysterious depths of the Satie’s account of the death of Socrates, he and his dancers are bold, varied and utterly distinctive.

Now 57, Morris is one of dance’s major figures. He’s celebrated for his response to music, the juiciness of his dance style and his immediate connection with audiences. He’s very popular in the UK, but it’s three years since his company’s last visit. Across two eclectic programmes, he showed seven works, all UK premieres.

The Muir is danced to Beethoven’s arrangement of Scottish and Irish folk songs, sung by soprano Jennifer France and tenor Zach Finkelstein. The dancers dip and flirt, but the piece loses spontaneity.  In Crosswalk, to Weber, dancers rush past each other. Two spin as they pass – and a third drops, as if knocked off balance by the crosswind. Morris picks out rhythms with unexpected shimmies, dancers diving into rolls and striding onwards.

Socrates is the highlight of Programme A. Satie’s three-part score is cool and apparently detached. Pianist Colin Fowler plays hypnotic, repeated motifs as Finkelstein sings of Socrates’ virtues, remembers a walk by the river and describes the philosopher’s death.

Morris’ choreography is gestural but not narrative. No single dancer plays Socrates, though several act moments described in the score. “Speakers” recline or take statuesque poses as other dancers move in pairs, overtaking and circling each other. For the river walk, the cast of fifteen cross the stage, from left to right, like a flow of water, in rippling walks and floating runs.

Different groups act out the death of Socrates, forming circles and regrouping. As he dies, the dancers drop one, but shiver with movement on the last note. Steps and performance are as lucid as the music, without histrionics. The restraint becomes moving, something dark and strange beneath the surface.

Programme B kicks off with the exuberant Excursions. Six dancers, in bright colours, move in tight formation, with squared elbows or tipped torsos to Barber’s bright piano music.

A Wooden Tree is delightfully daft. Dressed in plaid shirts and lurid knitwear, the dancers play out the folksy weirdness of Ivor Cutler. As his precise Scottish voice wanders through peculiar domestic incident, they respond with manic precision. They snap into place or whisk each other about like animated but protesting dolls, or swoop through country dance steps with superb comic timing.

Jenn and Spencer, named for its dancers Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez, is an intense duet to Henry Cowell. Weddel, a tall, blonde woman, moves with stormy grandeur, matched by Ramirez’s direct grace. From striding steps to whirling lifts, the duet gives both dancers a fierce independence.

Festival Dance, to a perky piano trio by Hummel, makes a buoyant finale. Dancers walk in and skip in lines, flow and sway into solos and duets. They zigzag through unexpected exits and entrances, then sail joyfully onwards.

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