Choreographer Mark Morris has been gracing Boston with his artistic invention since the mid-’80s, so his company’s regular visits offer a welcome opportunity to see what he’s been up to recently. The current Celebrity Series presentation of the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Cutler Majestic Theatre brings three recent works to town for the first time. From the first two pieces on the program, one might be tempted to suspect the one-time bad boy of modern dance has gone soft. “The Muir” (2010) and “Festival Dance” (2011) are lovely, full of unabashed romantic sweep and balletic grace. Both are cute rather than clever, and neither is particularly memorable.
The final work, however, is unforgettable. The 40-minute “Socrates” (2010) is set to Erik Satie’s 1918 cantata “Socrate,” given a superb performance by tenor Michael Kelly and pianist Colin Fowler. (All the pieces are performed to live music, an admirable commitment to which Morris has never wavered.)
Michael Chybowski’s light design and décor sets the stage for “Socrates” with a stark backdrop of flat black and brightly lit white. Martin Pakledinaz clothes the dancers in toga-like costumes, but there are no specific characters portrayed — the work unfolds with a sense that all of the 15 dancers embody qualities of the people evoked in the libretto. They all experience the pivotal moments of the drama. Unlike many of Morris’s works to vocal music, “Socrates” channels the text with admirable subtlety. It is the shifting meters and textures of Satie’s impressionistic score that seem to urge the movement. The music invites sophisticated rhythmic interplay, and Morris responds with bursts of counterpoint and nuanced layering. And he moves his dancers in eye-catching patterns. The expected lines and circles merge into surprising asymmetries. Long diagonals coil into spirals and split into massed groups.
Often the dancers’ angular poses face sideways, bodies flattened like a frieze on a Greek vase. Lines glide in and out, back and forth like sliding panels. The classical formalism occasionally evokes the emotional resonance of gentle communal ritual. And when Kelly sings of the “Death of Socrates,” it isn’t just a single dancer who memorably falls, but all, one by one.
“The Muir, set to Irish and Scottish folk songs arranged by Beethoven, is a genial, playful romp full of jetés, arabesques, sweeping spins, and cascading falls. Dominated by romantic boy/girl partnering, it mimics much of the song texts with gestures — fists clench, fingers point, hands reach and caress. Only occasionally do we get the ironic Morris, as when we hear “She is the darling of my heart” and claw-like hands seem to wrest a heart from the chest.
“Festival Dance,” to a piano trio by Hummel, seeds the lyrical movement with the muscular exuberance of folk dance. It takes awhile to gather momentum, partly due to the classical gentility of the music. But by the final “Rondo — Polka,” the group takes off in a flurry of runs accented by vivid back kick turns and soaring lifts.