Dance critic Lucia Mauro offers performances with some sizzle | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Dance critic Lucia Mauro offers performances with some sizzle

Music and dance go together like wings and hot sauce, but two upcoming performances take this pairing and really up the sizzle. Mark Morris Dance Group performs today through Sunday at the Harris Theater in Chicago.

You can catch Ballet Chicago and the Orion Ensemble Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Music Institute of Chicago. They’ll have two more performances in early March. WBEZ dance critic Lucia Mauro shared her impressions with Eight Forty-Eight.

Many choreographers cite music as their main inspiration. But few aim for a literal representation of the music in dance. Instead they dig deep into a composition to discover fresh movement that taps into the essence of the score. Such is the case with hyper-musical choreographer Mark Morris. His Mark Morris Dance Group performs three newer dance vignettes honoring the music of Beethoven, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Erik Satie. And it’s all to live chamber-music accompaniment.

The most narrative piece in this lyrical trilogy is Socrates, a three-part neoclassical dance on the life and death of the title Athenian philosopher. It’s set to a cantata for piano and voice. The words are excerpts from three of Plato’s Dialogues. The work opens with 15 dancers, clad in Grecian tunics the color of brown clay and blue sky, entering in the stately formation of an ancient processional bas relief. Linked by a rope--perhaps to indicate our common humanity--the dancers weave and cross under each other’s arms to create a gentle geometric swirl.

No one dancer represents Socrates. They move as an androgynous unit of knowledge seekers, occasionally holding a finger to their lips as if their insights might condemn them to death. They link arms, glide and squat across crisp diagonals. Sometimes they resemble the heaving galley slaves of Ben-Hur. Plato’s words, Satie’s music and Morris’ gestures place us in a utopian realm of philosophical debate. It’s as if we’re seeing a living, but pared down, version of Raphael’s famed Renaissance painting, The School of Athens – a tribute to ancient thinkers. Yet the choreography is not always solemn. Morris constructs movement that can be playfully self-smirking and deeply reverential. It’s also noble and restrained…until the end…when Socrates collapses after drinking hemlock. But one of the ensemble members rises and soars off stage… indicating the philosopher’s enduring legacy.

Classical-contemporary composer Victoria Bond chose an equally enigmatic subject for her new score: cards of the Tarot deck. Her work, titled Instruments of Revelation, will be played live by Chicago’s Orion Ensemble and danced by Ballet Chicago. Daniel Duell, the group’s artistic director, choreographed solos that correspond to Bond’s music. It’s as if the symbolic figures are hopping out of the deck and dancing their personalities. The Magician, or Juggler, is a cunning and dexterous character who captures the music’s mystery via elaborate conjuring motions. His out-turned legs and solid torso show an incisive body that’s completely in control…especially has he juggles an imaginary crystal ball.

The Fool stumbles in impishly as comic relief, but he’s wiser than he looks.  The off-kilter turns and drunken changes of direction belie an all-knowing interior. Dancing to a wobbly and comedic score, he appears to be Puck, the capricious trickster from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream…tottering between the proper and the banal.

Both Mark Morris Dance Group and Ballet Chicago use music and movement to unravel age-old questions about life’s purpose and what the future holds.

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