Musical marriage

Mark Morris Dance Group performing Mozart Dances. Picture: Stephanie Berger

Mark Morris is a household name among contemporary dance aficionados. A prolific choreographer, he established the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980 and has created nearly 150 works for the New York-based company. Renowned for making dance that is popular with critics and the public alike, Morris’ status is nothing short of legendary.

He was just 24 when he founded his company but laughs when I suggest this was a brave move at such a young age. “I don’t know if it was brave or ignorant or both, ” he says. In interviews that I’ve read and watched, Morris comes across as supremely confident, so this relatively self-deprecating remark is a surprise. “A friend of mine, the choreographer Lar Lubovitch, gave me some brilliant advice, ” Morris continues. “He said ‘You’re not going to start a dance company, are you?’”

The young Morris was undeterred by Lubovitch’s caution. “I’d been choreographing on and off and I had enough work to put on a concert in New York, ” he recalls. “I wanted to show my dances because I thought they were fine. I thought they were pretty good.”

This is the Morris I found in my research — unflinchingly sure of himself. So often it seems that choreographers expect to be, and are expected to be, humble, modest about their work. It’s refreshing to encounter the opposite in Morris.

Perhaps this apparently unwavering self-belief comes, in part, from the fact that Morris has always known he wanted a career in dance. Having trained in Spanish dance from the age of eight, he later trained in modern dance techniques, ballet and folk dance. “I started choreographing at about 15, ” he says. “I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in dance. It was just what I did.”

From the start of his career Morris was influenced by folk dance. “I’m not an ethnomusicologist but I’m deeply involved with dances from all over the world, ” he explains.

“As a dancer I did a lot of folk dancing from Eastern Europe and Northern Africa, both casually and semi-professionally. I’m a huge admirer of Indian dance — classical and traditional. I just got back from a tour of Cambodia, Timor, Taiwan and China and saw some wonderful, fabulous dancing.

“Although I don’t use citations from any particular folk dance or culture in my own choreography, it’s part of what I like to see. I like to see people dance together, hold hands, look at each other and participate, instead of a dance performance just being a display. Of course, it’s a display in that it’s in the theatre and we’re paying money for it but I like to see that people have some sort of relationship with one another — the musicians and the dancers and everybody.”

It’s no surprise that Morris mentions musicians as well as dancers because, for him, music is inseparable from dance. “Music is just something I love. I work only with live music — every show, every class we do is with live music, ” he states emphatically.

So dedicated is Morris to music that his company has its own musicians, the MMDG Music Ensemble. “My company and music ensemble don’t exist without each other, ” he says. “There’s no dancing without music and vice versa. They’re inseparable because that’s how I want my work to be conceived and received. There’s no recorded version. To me, that’s the most valuable thing about live theatre, that everyone is living.”

As the name suggests, Mozart Dances, the work Morris is bringing to the festival, is a celebration of the music of Mozart. “It was commissioned for the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York and the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, to commemorate the last year of Mozart’s life, ” explains Morris. “I decided to use three big pieces of Mozart’s music, featuring the piano specifically.” The three works are Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, Sonata in D major for Two Pianos and Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major.

“It’s a very big program for the piano — it’s a lot more than you would normally play in an evening. I wanted that over-saturation of piano music, ” he explains. “The two-piano sonata, in the middle of the evening, is really the heart of it, musically. The three dance works can be performed separately, but they’re best when they’re combined into this interlocking evening of three big pieces.”

Despite the fact his company is almost 35 years old, Morris still speaks about his work with youthful levels of enthusiasm and, again, that endearing mix of self-deprecating humour and total self-assurance surfaces.

“Choreography is my only skill. I’m interested in other things but I’m not nearly as good at them as I am at making up dances.” He continues more seriously, “My inspiration is always music and it always has been. Through all of my folk-dancing days, my travel days and my singing days, I’ve always found music to be the most thrilling and unifying of the arts. The marriage of dancing and music to me is just irresistible. Choreography is a fascinating, in-the-moment activity that can’t be translated in any other way. That’s what I like about it.”
Mozart Dances / February 13–15 / His Majesty’s Theatre / $25 to $125