Preview: For legendary choreographer Mark Morris at the Rialto, the beat still goes on

Festival Dance will be featured in the Mark Morris program at the Rialto.
Festival Dance will be featured in the Mark Morris program at the Rialto.
Festival Dance will be featured in the Mark Morris program at the Rialto.
Festival Dance will be featured in the Mark Morris program at the Rialto.

The day I interviewed Mark Morris, he had just received his copy of Mark Morris: Musician-Choreographer, a new book by dance scholar Stephanie Jordan, Ph.D. (Available later this month.) The fact that musician precedes choreographer in the title is no surprise; Morris is known for his sophisticated approach to music, his love of conducting and his insistence on live music for his company’s performances. 

This, along with his remarkable output and expansive creative vision, has made him the most influential American dance maker working today. Time magazine once described him as “the most prodigiously gifted choreographer of the post-Balanchine era.”   

Fifteen years after its last visit to Atlanta, The Mark Morris Dance Group and the MMDG Music Ensemble will perform three works Saturday, October 17, 8 p.m. at the Rialto Center for the ArtsPacific (1995), Festival Dance (2011) and A Wooden Tree (2012). While these may not be his most famous works, anything by Morris is a must-see. 

Mark Morris
Mark Morris

Interviewing Morris is like trying to harness a galloping horse. He loves to talk and is an intriguing mix of deep intelligence and flippant irreverence. He has strong opinions about a lot of things. Music, for starters. 

“For me, the question is not why do I use live music,” he says by phone from his New York apartment. “The question is: Why doesn’t everyone else? The big corporate ballet companies do. Merce Cunningham always did. I am not the standard for choreographers, but if you are going to use music I prefer that it be good music and that it be performed live.” 

It’s easy enough, he says, to use a piano transcription of a composition, performed live, in place of a recording of a full orchestra. He is heartened that more small-scale dance ensembles and choreographers are working with live music these days. “I hope I am to blame for some of that,” he laughs. “It doesn’t cost that much and it’s so much better.”

Like Balanchine, Morris does far more than simply set movement to music. He is known for integrating the two in brilliant and perceptive ways. He has delved deep into the (mainly classical) musical lexicon, creating works to Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), Handel (his acclaimed L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato), Virgil Thomson and many other composers not usually associated with dance. 

In Atlanta, the company’s piano trio will perform Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s pastoral Piano Trio No. 5 for Festival Dance. “He was an extremely popular composer in his time, a great piano virtuoso,” Morris says. Pacific is set to two movements from American composer Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano. Pacific was originally choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet and entered the Morris repertory last year.

A Wooden Tree, the third work on the Atlanta mixed bill, is a rare exception to Morris’ rule. It is set to recordings of songs by Scottish songwriter, poet and humorist Ivor Cutler, whose unique, offbeat voice and presence would be hard to duplicate. “I didn’t want anyone doing a bad impression of him,” says Morris.  

For many years Morris has coached musicians and conductors, training them to understand what’s needed for dance. “It’s always in the score,” he explains, highlighting his respect for the composers’ intentions. “It’s not like ‘watch her and slow down for this part,’ which is what ballet orchestras do, which is shameful, mostly.” Shameful is one of his favorite words.

When his musical choices call for a larger orchestra, Morris sometimes conducts. “Then, if the music (for my dance pieces) sucks, I am partly to blame for that,” he says. “If someone is out of tune in rehearsal I can say, ‘You’re flat,’ but in a performance I just have to give them a look.” 

He has studied conducting and has led orchestras, with and without his dancers, at various festivals including the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he made his conducting debut this summer — barefoot. He finds conducting exciting, daunting, “a little nervous making,” but also very rewarding. 

His company, often the only dance entity involved in classical music events, has performed 11 times at the annual Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. Few if any dance companies have performed to Emanuel Ax playing Mozart, live, which his ensemble did at the 2007 festival. 

He believes his approach is appreciated by music lovers. He also has an agenda. “The music audience is 25 thousand times bigger than the dance audience. I trick people into watching a dance.”

The first book about Morris was critic Joan Acocella’s Mark Morris, written in 1994 when the choreographer was only 37 years old. Now 59, he continues to inspire critical acclaim in both dance and music circles. Jordan’s about-to-be-published book promises to be the first detailed study of his approach to music. It’s probably not the last. 

(The Mark Morris Dance Group has created a program for people with Parkinson’s disease. Dancers from the company will give a free class to Atlanta’s Parkinson’s community at Still Pointe Dance Studios, 1675 Peachtree Parkway, on October 17, 11 a.m. to noon.)

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