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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Cal Performances at UC Berkeley presents Mark Morris Dance Group, April 19-21, 2024, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

Updated: Apr 22

When is too much of a good thing too much?  Friday night’s Cal Performances presentation of the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) at UC Berkeley offers a compelling but complicated double bill by choreographer Mark Morris. Created fourteen years apart, each work explores the ethos of an esteemed truth-teller, who faces their condemnation and impending death gracefully in the company of others.  

Mark Morris Dance Group in Via Dolorosa; Photo by Chris Hardy

Socrates (2010) dramatizes the life and final days of the legendary philosopher.  It precedes the world premiere of Via Dolorosa, a depiction of Jesus’ journey through Jerusalem, in the fourteen stations of the cross.   While each dance is exultant in its own way, the duo’s similarities, in subject matter and performative textures, muddy, rather than amplify, their potential separate impact.

In buttery silk tunics of muted sky, sea, and earth tones (costumes Martin Pakledinaz), pairs of enthusiastic students, tethered to each other by a short strand of woven reeds, playfully spar. The give-and-take of intellectual discussion is portrayed in a literal tug of war, yielding in time to agreeable interplay.   Socrates, accompanied by Erik Satie’s 1918 compositions “Portrait de Socrate,” “Bords de L’Illisus,” and “Mort de Socrates,” unfolds in three parts. The French text/lyrics translated by Roger Nichols, from Plato, is performed live from the orchestra pit, by resplendent tenor Brian Giebler and assured pianist Colin Fowler.  

Advance reading of the lyrics is highly recommended, as the supertitles are fast and dense. Playing high above the stage, they are difficult to absorb while also watching the dance, which delightfully draws shapes from the carved stone reliefs of Ancient Greece architecture. Michael Chybowski’s luminous side-lighting etches the dancers’ statuesque silhouettes against the interplay of a black backing-panel and a clear bright white sky.

In Bords de L’Illisus, as the river flows, so too do the dancers, rippling, waving, spiraling in a near constant current from right to left.  Tapping toes in a jaunty Charleston step, prancing on soft deer feet, lying briefly at the waters edge and swaying like the grasses, the dancers are not so much carried by the current but rather embody it.

The concluding Death of Socrates scene features tableaus which lift the lyrics. As Socrates “sits with his unchained leg elevated,” Joslin Vezeau perches atop the bent back of another and is tended by others. As Socrates drinks the poison. a wildness intrudes briefly, the stage enlivened by chaotic hurry. With powerful poignancy, one by one, figures enter. Stepping side to side, each brings a hand to their chest before collapsing. As the lights fade, our final vision is of a sea of arms reaching skyward from the floor now littered in bodies. 

MMDG’s Socrates is a thoughtful and artistically rich ensemble work that feels fresh and deserving of this revival.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Socrates; Photo by Chris Hardy

Performed to Nico Muhy’s solo harp piece, “The Street (14 Stations of the Cross),” Via Dolorosa is inspired by Alice Goodman’s original texts.  Scenic designer Howard Hodgkin’s painted backdrop features bold slashes of color, an abstracted rainbow receptive to Nicole Pearce’s saturated light washes which set the mood of each succeeding episode.

Repetition of gestures and alternating protagonists reinforce the narrative.  Rather than choose a single dancer to portray Jesus, Morris rotates and multiplies the role. At times, the stage fills with the crucified, as dancers face us, legs crossed at the ankles, arms splayed, heads sagging forward and sideways.

Powerful imagery abounds, making the iconography of Via Dolorosa legible for all. Faceless figures, their backs to us, stand in judgement. In Jesus is Condemned to Death (1), the crowd appraises the accused, measuring his worth with thumbs jutting from extended and rotating arms. Dancers lean forward, their steeply angled bodies pressing heavily into lunging legs. With their hands tucked behind their backs, falling is inevitable in Jesus Falls for the First Time (3).

Jesus Meets his Mother (4) begins with the memory of his birth. Sarah Hillmon, as Mary, squats deeply, hovering over her prone son, Brandon Randolph, before clutching his tightly tucked infant form to her chest.  Soon he is a toddler, striding upright upon his knees, his hand in hers. 

Mark Morris Dance Group in Via Dolorosa; Photo by Chris Hardy

Bodies form crosses, which trust-fall into the waiting arms of faithful companions. The image of Simon of Cyrene Helping Jesus to Carry the Cross (5) is so clear, as supporters drag rigid cross-shaped physiques across the stage, that one pictures trailing divots being carved into Jerusalem’s dirt road by the pointed toes which skim the earth as various groupings progress. 

Each scene introduces new movement: figures bounce vertically behind a line of citizens, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he Meets the Women of Jerusalem (8).  Arms windmill backward in a churning, unsettling drunkenness as Jesus Falls for the Third Time (9). When Jesus is Stripped of His Garments (10), t-shaped figures spin, whirling through space in succession.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Via Dolorosa; Photo by Chris Hardy

As Jesus Dies on the Cross (12), it is not the transcendent arabesques in the foreground that hold us, but rather the all too human duo quivering in distress, seated in a half-light corner wrapped in each other’s arms.

Time and again a trio enters, convivially connected with hands on shoulders before the center figure collapses forcing the remaining two to swoop in and carry the drooping body, ensuring, despite dangling limbs, that the newly dead never touches the ground in Jesus is Laid in the Tomb (14).  The piece concludes with an evocative compilation of Via Dolorosa’s phrase-work, reinforcing the emotional arc and exultant nature of this biblical ballet.

While the two pieces feel like siblings, I would have preferred to visit them on separate outings. Via Dolorosa seems heavy-handed in comparison to Socrates, but I suspect it may be heart-stopping on its own.

MMDG appears annually at Cal Performances, bringing a range of programming from baroque opera pastiches, and deeply musical post-modern Mozart dances, to festive contemporary music maker tributes, such as The Look of Love, celebrating the songs of Burt Bacharach. Berkeley audiences retain fond memories of The Hard Nut (1991), Morris’s tongue-in-cheek reimagining of The Nutcracker set at a 70’s-era holiday party, which has graced the Zellerbach Hall stage a dozen times since 1996 (most recently in 2017).

Presenting the story of the crucifixion of Christ in a secular setting, during a time of ongoing hostilities in the Holy Lands is a bold choice, which brought some audience members to their feet, while one outspoken viewer booed loudly during bows and still others murmured their dismay. The serious nature of this program was not available when subscribers selected MMDG as part of their seasons and if the rumblings of the exiting crowd are any indication, they were expecting something lighter. 

Review by Jen Norris, published April 20, 2024

Corrected April 22 with corrected attributions to dancers Joslyn Vezeau and Sarah Hillmon.

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