Jesus’ Death: A Drama Drawn Lean For Harp, Mark Morris Dancers

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The Mark Morris Dance Group performed Morris’ ‘Via Dolorosa” at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. (Photos by Chris Hardy)

BERKELEY — The Mark Morris Dance Group seems to offer one program a year, which tours and is then replaced by its successor. The sequences usually begin at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall — Morris’ “West Coast home away from home” — so designated in 2002, though the company first performed there in 1987 and has done so annually since 1994.

Whether, upon looking back over the years, Morris has regularly alternated moods, I don’t know. But he certainly has from his last program to this new one. The Look of Love began as a happy celebration of the songs of Burt Bacharach. The composer’s death a week before its premiere in Berkeley last year turned the event into a post-mortem tribute, despite its still-sunny nature.

Parker Ramsay was the brilliant harpist in ‘Via Dolorosa.’

The new program, seen at its first night April 19, is all about deaths, first of Socrates, then of Jesus: two dances made 14 years apart but nicely synergetic. The music and dance are not dark and gloomy. But the program is still refined and austere; no more lavishness of the sort Morris enjoyed in Brussels under Gerard Mortier from 1988 to 1991. That era produced his masterpiece, the evening-long L’Allegro, ll Penseroso ed il Moderato, to the full forces of Handel’s oratorio.

Here the music is Erik Satie’s Socrate, from 1918, for tenor and piano — not the chamber orchestra alternative. And then Nico Muhly’s cycle The Street (here renamed Via Dolorosa), for solo harp, in some performances augmented by plainchant and narrator. Morris sticks with the harp alone. The spare forces will obviously make touring more economical. (And eliminating the narrator and plainchant whittles Via Dolorosa down to 40 minutes from the score’s suggested 75.) But the music still sounds rich and compelling, and so, in its comparably spare way, is the dance.

Via Dolorosa, as a world premiere, came second but takes pride of place here. The original idea for setting The Street, happily seconded by Morris, came from the harpist Parker Ramsay, and he plays brilliantly — dulcet, aggressive, even fierce (one section specifies the use of a guitar pick).

The cycle is inspired by 14 poems by Alice Goodman, haunting and compelling. Goodman is still best known for her librettos for John Adams’ operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, both of which Morris choreographed. Then, before Adams’ Doctor Atomic, she transitioned into an English-based Anglican priest, albeit born Jewish.

There is a striking single backdrop by Howard Hodgkin, a bold splash of bright, rainbow-colored paint.

Her poems on the 14 stations of the cross, from condemnation to ascent to Calvary to crucifixion to burial, circle about the actual incidents to meditate on their wider meaning, then and now. They were reprinted in the program but not projected; Morris correctly felt too much text would be a distraction.

Muhly has his own deep ties to English church music. His evocations of Jesus’ suffering and agonizing death, along with merciful interactions from Simon of Cyrene and Mary and Veronica, were always engrossing, his seeming eschewal of modernist dissonance failing to disguise its inner subtleties.

For all this, Morris and his current 14-member company — wonderfully diverse as to body type — dance in a flowing, sometimes overtly pictorial style. As usual, they dance barefoot, here in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s simple costumes. There is a striking single backdrop by Howard Hodgkin, a bold splash of bright, rainbow-colored paint that shifts hue with Nicole Pearce’s dramatic changes of lighting.

Martin Pakledinaz’s tunics in ‘Socrates’ certainly look Grecian.

Sometimes Morris provides clear if fleeting illustrations of each subject, as in Jesus stumbling three times under the weight of the cross, or a dancer assuming a stiff pose of the cross itself. But usually a given moment is replicated by multiple dancers — multiple crosses born by multiple Jesuses. As the drama progresses, music and dance become simpler and purer, finally disappearing into thin air. The resurrection is yet to come, but there are floating leaps of anticipatory joy.

It was all quietly beautiful until disrupted at the very end, before the applause could even begin, by an insistent, hoarse BOO from the balcony — not repeated after the initial outburst. Odd.

The half-hour Socrates, originally titled The Death of Socrates, was first seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010 and later that same year in Berkeley. Satie’s score Socrate, and Morris’ dance, is in three parts, three tableaux by Plato showing first Socrates himself as teacher and thinker, then an idyll with a friend on a riverbank, and finally the longer “Death of Socrates” itself, a depiction of his quietly accepting, heroic death.

Mark Morris Dance Group members in ‘Socrates’

Here the choreography, while maintaining Morris’ characteristic ensemble work (no preening stars for him), is very different in style from Via Dolorosa. Flowing full-body movement is replaced by hieratic arm gestures. The first section finds the dancers in pairs or trios, not touching but bound together by hand-held straps of rope or leather. Dancers are mostly positioned in profile, their arms extended and wrists or forearms bent upwards. It all looks vaguely Egyptian, not that we know that much about ancient Greek dance. To some jaded observers, it recalled Steve Martin’s ”King Tut,” but never mind.

Martin Pakledinaz’s tunics certainly look Grecian. Michael Chybowski did the set and lighting, varied by how much of the plain white back wall was obscured or revealed by a black hanging. Musically, the tenor Brian Giebler sings serviceably in serviceable French, the English text projected on high. Colin Fowler is the pianist.

But, appropriately, it is the choreography and the dancing that seize one’s attention. The climactic death scene coheres into moving images of the calmly accepting philosopher and his weeping comrades. At the end, a sole figure — the spirit of Socrates escaping to posterity — remains.