Welcome to Our
25th Year of Publication

July 2024



RS 1 Cortege by Chris Hardy

Mark Morris World Première
Via Dolorosa
plus Socrates
at Cal Performances Berkeley

Renate Stendhal

The moment the curtain is down, you blink: could I see this again, please? What exactly have I just seen?  Every now and then it happens that a dance piece astonishes because it brings home that dance can express abstract thoughts and spiritual revelations that are hard to put into words.

Via Dolorosa, the new world première by Mark Morris and his Mark Morris Dance Group has this quality, and so does his earlier Socrates
(2010) that opened at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Choreographer Morris, who is also an accomplished musician and conductor, has a long-standing connection with Cal Performances. I vividly remember some of his masterpieces shown there: Händel’sL’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (from 1988) and his yearly rousing, dysfunctional Nutcracker version, The Hard Nut (from 1991). Both can be savored on DVD.


Via Dolorosa

As the title indicates, the theme is the last journey of the man Jesus of Nazareth from his arrest to his crucifixion and burial. This journey is set to Nico Muhli’s composition The Street (14 Meditations on the Stations of the Cross) and is based on a text by librettist Alice Goodman (Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, by John Adams). Muhli created a score for solo harp, extending the instrument to an unusual, partly percussionist scope that sounds as ancient as King Solomon’s harp and as modernist as Paul Hindemith (whom he quotes at one point). The original performance included readings of Goodman’s text and plainchant song. Morris used the harp score alone, performed live by harpist Parker Ramsay. The text is included in the program.


Each of the fourteen “meditations” is a scene—one could call it a street scene—on this final road of a human being marked for death. This human being is initially personified by a woman, then a man, a woman again, and at times by everyone. The stage is empty against a backdrop (by Howard Hodgkin) of bold abstract brushstrokes that change their intensity of colors with the changing light.


The piece starts with a bang when a street group suddenly shoots arms and fists forward at a woman in their midst. Nothing marks her out; they all wear the same sack-like caftan-robes one sees in depictions of biblical times. The aggressive gesture of the group comes  out of nowhere, setting the signal for the persecution. It is instantly clear that Morris extends the biblical story of Jesus to a calvary of humankind, where every dancer in turn takes the role of victim, bystander, helper, companion, or follower on the journey to the cross.



Interestingly, this extension of one man’s fate to everyone’s is already prefigured in Socrates (2010), set to Eric Satie’s piano song cycle Socrates, which opens the program as a perfect lead-in and preparation for the world première. The libretto, taken from Plato’s Symposium, is printed in the program. Both choreographies share some impressive stylistic elements: both shine with the remarkable musicality that is Morris’s trademark, and both are painterly to an extraordinary degree. In moments they cast the spell of tableaux vivants, as if you were looking at a historical frieze that mysteriously sets into motion. Both works pull one irresistibly into a time-travel to a historical place, and the dancers’s bodies and movements seem to be molded into a language of that ancient place.


In Socrates, it is the fluid allusion to the origins of the classical world: ancient Greece and Egypt, with somewhat flattened, forward-turned bodies and angled arms. Hands are open and seem raised as an offer of ideas. Circling movements bring alive the urns and plates we admire in museums. Forward-rushing steps and leaps seem to emerge from Cretan temples. There is a delicate echo from another work about the classical world: Nijinsky’s choreography of Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune.


The dancers wear beautifully faded Grecian-style tunics (reflecting the painting by Jaques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, from 1787, reproduced in the program). They appear one moment as mythological beings, naiads or zephyrs, and in the next, as pure forms of thought—Socratic principles, perhaps, or teachings of aesthetic harmonies. Here, too, the topic of death—the state-ordered suicide of the philosopher–is not personalized in one particular dancer. Dying seems gracefully submerged in the embrace of life of the whole group.

 Via Dolorosa


In Via Dolorosa, the painterly choreography recalls medieval mosaics, Giotto, and well-known paintings of the Renaissance. A distinct movement language highlights acceptance of pain and death with the rounded arms and open palms of ritual worship.


And there is every imaginable body position that evokes the geometry of the cross and its associations—trees, birds in flight, open-armed effusion of tenderness and acquiescence. Particularly moving is the repeated shift from arms stretched out as if for crucifixion to letting go—softening and bending into an embrace of the persons standing near-by in support. The entire piece is built on falling and being held, falling and being carried—the dialogue between love and death.

Morris had heard about The Street by Muhli through an article in The Guardian, in 2022. Many years ago, he had supplied choreography for composer John Adams’s operas set to libretti by Alice Goodman. The libretto for The Street, written from the point of view of ordinary and extraordinary bystanders, moved him to tears, Morris told SF Classical Voice in an interview.


Very quickly after the Covid lock-down was over, Via Dolorosa was born. The compelling unity of style and beauty in the conception of Morris’s work and the execution by his marvelous dancers do justice to the founding story of Christianity. This is one reason for the powerful effect of the piece. Another is that an openly gay choreographer shapes the story as the transparent journey of any man or woman marked as the other, the outsider, the accused—whether she or he is the simple street person, the prophet, or the savior.


Photos: Chris Hardy


Share This Page

View other readers’ comments in Letters to the Editor

Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2024 Renate Stendhal
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



Index of Renate Stendhal’s articles
and reviews in Scene4.

Click Here for Access


July 2024

  Sections Cover · This Issue · inFocus · inView · inSight · Perspectives · Special Issues
  Columns Adler · Alenier · Alpaugh · Bettencourt · Jones · Luce · Marcott · Walsh 
  Information Masthead · Your Support · Prior Issues · Submissions · Archives · Books
  Connections Contact Us · Comments · Subscribe · Advertising · Privacy · Terms · Letters

|  Search Issue | Search Archives | Share Page |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2024 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine