Did this dance address any defined subject, or many? No, and maybe. Or yes, and yes. (When Morris created it for a Croatian folk dance troupe in 1994, he had the escalating war in Bosnia on his mind, more or less.) Its subtlety allows for open-ended interpretations. “The Office” is everything you want in a work of art.
In his long and extraordinarily fruitful career, Morris has made whispering dances such as “The Office,” but also large-scale narrative works (“The Hard Nut,” “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”) and bold, muscular plotless ones (“Grand Duo,” “V”). But what binds his output is subtlety, which paradoxically gives his work its emotional, musical and visual force.
Subtlety is an aspect of the unexpected — important because I want to be surprised at a performance. I want to see something new. On this evening, I also heard something new, and it wasn’t just the Dvorak. Morris insists on live music — he always travels with his own musicians — and he abhors the predictable. So a Morris evening features the kind of wide-ranging and provocative encounters with chamber music that, say, a program of Merce Cunningham’s avant-garde works once offered in modern music.
“Festival Dance,” also on the George Mason program, featured little-known Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He could have composed for musical theater: At one point, amid the foamy good cheer of his Piano Trio No. 5 in E, Op. 83, I heard a jaunty little tune that sounded like something out of the musical “Oklahoma!” Morris responded to Hummel’s high spirits with a straightforward expression of joy for six couples. At times we glimpsed their private play, at others they gave us a romping barn dance. Every now and then one dancer balked at her partner, or threw up her hands in frustration; there were little snags in this vision of unity, which was part of the overall charm.
If “Festival Dance” was mostly pleasure and “The Office” was mostly pain, “Socrates” was an elixir of both. How unfair to have seen it only once. I’d like to view this piece many times over, for its miracle of calm while unfurling the story of the philosopher’s death. Though the dancing didn’t actually tell the story — that was left to the vocal text accompanying Satie’s spare piano composition “Socrate.” It was beautifully sung in French by Zach Finkelstein, and translated in surtitles above the stage. (The excellent Colin Fowler played piano.)