Who knew that Beethoven composed his own cover version of ‘Sally in our Alley’? Mark Morris, obviously: the (English) song is the centrepiece of The Muir, set to nine of Beethoven’s 25 arrangements of Scottish and Irish ballads. They’re sung by three members of the MMDG Music Ensemble, listed along with the dancers in the programme credits.
The lyrics, many of them in dialect, can be hard to distinguish – a pity because the choreography follows them in tone and gesture, as Morris did in his Purcell masterpiece, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Three couples express the turbulence of young love, gambolling on the music’s folksy rhythms. All is not as carefree as the dance at first appears to be. Morris is an expert at incarnating happiness on stage, reflected in his audiences’ response. But there’s often an undercurrent of melancholy: happiness is ephemeral.
Adorable Sally (Laurel Lynch) is charming, her two besotted suitors disarming. Michelle Yard, however, is downcast over the loss of the lover she disdained, to the song ‘The sweetest lad was Jamie’. A graceful trio of women could be sylphs or Apollo’s muses; three men are swept away in an excess of love, embracing themselves and each other. Then comes the dark last song, ‘The Lovely Lass of Inverness’: she (Rita Donohue) laments the death of her menfolk in battle on Drumnossie Muir – the Scottish moor of the dance’s title – as the men pace to a funereal beat.
Crosswalk, to Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant for piano and clarinet, also has a dying fall after a bright, explosive start. Three women in shades of red and tangerine and eight men in white t-shirts and dark trousers erupt across the stage like athletes from starting blocks. Their speedy basic step becomes a skip, which transmutes into balletic batterie or clog dance toe-heel motifs. The same steps look very different on men or women, their folkloric simplicity complicated by shifts of shoulders and weight. In the slow movement, the cast criss-crosses solemnly in lines or pairs, the men resembling piano notes, the women the clarinet’s warblings. The musicians are Colin Fowler, piano, Todd Palmer, clarinet. Towards the end, a man is abandoned by two women, lying motionless as they withdraw into the wings. Though the intricate structure of Morris’s choreography makes Weber’s music easy to watch, the dance eventually palls.
In Socrates, the audience as well as the performers bear witness to the philosopher’s willed death by poison. His story is told in three parts in Erik Satie’s 1918 score for voice and piano (Zach Finkelstein, tenor, Colin Fowler, piano). Surtitles keep us in touch with unfolding events. In the first part, ‘Portrait of Socrates’, the backdrop is split to show a male figure in silhouette as if in an alcove, while the citizens of Athens process past him in pairs, linked by knotted cords. They’re conversational, pulling against the cords, running and reclining. The cast of 15 act as a Greek chorus, undifferentiated apart from a woman in a long cloak – Socrates’ spirit or teachings.
In the second part, ‘On the Banks of the Illisus’, (a river passing through Athens), the chorus streams in lilting steps from stage left to right, mostly in profile until they turn to face us as their equals in a line. En route, there’s a delectable trio featuring Lauren Grant, small veteran of the company. For the final scene, ‘The Death of Socrates’, the dancers divide into groups of five, moving contrapuntally as visitors at the prison gate and mourners in the street. The poses they assume are those of classical Greek sculptures and bas reliefs; their grief is restrained, like the imperturbable voice of the tenor. As described in the lyrics, the cast, who are now all Socrates, drink from the cup of hemlock and fall slowly to the ground. The woman who appeared in the cloak in the first section departs as the curtain falls. Morris, like Satie, brings an infinite compassion to Socrates’ acceptance of the sentence of death, which will come to us all. The way is eased by keeping emotion at arms’ length, remote and measured. In this programme, the previous pieces, which might seem Morris-lite, lead up to a dignified dance of death, a summation of life well-lived.