Mark Morris designs a dance after he picks his music


A scene from the Mark Morris Dance Group performing "Festival Dance" during the Mostly Mozart Festival presented by Lincoln Center at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center. (Stephanie Berger/STEPHANIE BERGER PHOTOGRAPHY)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic February 1, 2013

When he is in the studio creating a dance, choreographer Mark Morris­ faces no end of decisions, questions, problems. How does he solve them? Honey, you have no idea.

Neither does he.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Let’s take “The Office.” No, not that “The Office.” I’m talking about a 1994 dance by Morris, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Scranton or that’s-what-she-said jokes. Morris has recently brought the work back into his repertory after an absence of more than a decade. Local audiences will see it for the first time when the Mark Morris Dance Group performs it and two other Washington premieres next Friday and Saturday at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.

“The Office” stands out for a couple of reasons. Morris originally choreographed it not for his own troupe but for a Croatian folk dance group in Ohio. He started working on it at the height of the war in Bosnia, and by the time he was finished with it, he discovered he had made something rare and possibly a first for him: a political dance.

“It wasn’t my intention,” he says. “But when it was finished it seemed like that.”


The Mark Morris Dance Company performs. (Richard Termine/PHOTO BY RICHARD TERMINE)

Morris’s method is to find a piece of music he likes, then create a dance to it, rather than to think of an idea for a dance and then look for music that fits. In this case, he started with Dvorak’s Five Bagatelles for Two Violins, Cello and Harmonium. (As always, his music ensemble will perform it live.) Morris had never made a dance to Dvorak before, and he found the harmonium especially appealing. Used subtly, it lends an unexpected horror-movie thrill to the swaying folk-dance rhythms.

Responding to the music’s structure, Morris decided to have the number of dancers diminish as the piece progresses, so the first section is a sextet, the second a quintet, and so on until there is only one dancer left.

But that’s not the only part of the work’s design that suggests the gradual, chilling sweep of death through this little community of dancers. There is also a character in a business suit, carrying a clipboard, who enters at the end of each section and, with crisp, wordless authority, escorts one of the dancers off the stage.

“It’s very, very — what’s the word — ambiguous,” Morris says, speaking by phone from his company’s headquarters in Brooklyn. “You take from it what you will. It has strange, sad overtones, and there’s the element of people going away as it happens. But that was purely pragmatic when I was choreographing it: who was at rehearsal, who could do what.”

Late in the process, a glimmer of a narrative began to take shape, and Morris added the dancer with the clipboard “in order to make it make sense,” he says.

And there it was: a work that in its austerity and structure suggested the ruthless, bureaucratic pursuit of annihilation, especially given its bits of folk dancing, Dvorak's melancholy and the Slavic heritage of its performers. Morris ended up in a different place from where he began, with a work that led the imagination to the atrocities taking place at the time in the former Yugoslavia.

Meanings are difficult for artists to talk about, as the creative process is rarely easy to put into words. For Morris, being asked to describe how he starts from nothing and ends up with any given dance is a kind of torture. But he doesn’t mean to be mysterious; the difficulty comes from an honest place. His medium is the body, after all: If he could talk about his ideas, he says, he wouldn’t need to express them in movement.

“If it’s about dance, I can’t answer it,” Morris says, shrugging off such questions with a laugh. “I have to answer it through dance.”

Fair enough. Let’s talk about music.

Morris has lots to say about the underappreciated Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, whose Piano Trio No. 5 in E accompanies “Festival Dance,” which Morris created in 2011 . It’s also on the George Mason program.

“A lot of people don’t care about Hummel; that’s too bad for them,” Morris says. “If other, brighter lights hadn’t surfaced — he was just post-Haydn and ­pre-Beethoven — he’d be better known. It’s wonderful, fabulous, very virtuosic music. Bohemian in a folk-dancey kind of way. . . . I found it, I heard it, it struck me and pretty much right away I made up a dance to it.”

What impressed him about Hummel’s piano trio is that, simply put, it makes you want to dance. With wicked appetite, Morris underscores how rare that is.

“Most music that’s written especially to be danced to is crappy, with the exception of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky and a few others,” he says. “You know, the Minkuses, the Glinkas, the Brahmses — the stuff that’s all square and not interesting.

“Take Beethoven, his ‘Creatures of Prometheus,’ a ballet he wrote. It’s like, oh God, you’ve gotta be kidding — this is the most awful music in the world!”

Erik Satie’s “Socrate,” a 30-minute piece for voice and piano that he (perhaps cheekily) called a “symphonic drama,” may not have been written for dancing, but Morris used it as the springboard for his “Socrates.” This 2010 work, for 15 dancers, rounds out the upcoming program. The vocal text, excerpted from Plato (and sung in French), ends with the story of the philosopher’s death from drinking poison. But the dancing only loosely corresponds; there are supertitles to help the audience follow.

It wasn’t just Satie’s light, restrained music and the poignant vocals that inspired Morris to create this piece in 2010. He was also thinking about the 18th-century painting “Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It shows Socrates about to quaff the fatal hemlock, consoling his disciples after being imprisoned for corrupting public morality. “By having ideas,” Morris adds, acidly.

“People walk right by it,” he mutters. It’s a “very great” painting.

Morris, if you haven’t noticed, is a man of strong opinions, whose expertise runs to plenty of other things besides dance. His vast musical knowledge is a hallmark of his company, which has led to recognition from the music world. He is on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he will direct two operas in late summer.

A new challenge awaits in June: That's when Morris debuts as the music director of the Ojai Music Festival in California. He has designed a weekend of American artists and American music, including works by Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and John Cage. His company will perform, as well as the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble. Morris is also slated to lead a live-band karaoke event.

“He has an incredible sense of adventure and fun,” says the festival’s artistic director Thomas W. Morris (no relation to the choreographer).

Plus, hiring the music festival’s first-ever choreographer-director has made for good box office. “The ticket sales have never been as strong as they are right now,” says Thomas Morris. “There is high, high interest in this.”

It’s all catnip to a man of broad interests and deep sensitivities. “I love this sort of thing,” Mark Morris says. He has also programmed radio shows and film series; he’ll give advice on where you should eat and what you should read. (Like what, you ask? “ ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’ by Roberto Calasso,” he replies, without hesitation. “It’s the Greek myth incredibly beautifully interleaved and narrative-ed. It’s an incredibly thrilling book.”)

He may get to program a venue’s entire dance season in a couple years, though he won’t yet divulge details.

Curating has become a fruitful side gig, though to Morris it’s all a part of what he does as a choreographer.

“I think I have interesting, good taste, and I like it when I can show people those things. It’s like having a dance company,” he says, “showing people something they can enjoy.”

The Office; Socrates; Festival Dance

the Mark Morris Dance Group performs Washington area premieres at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts,Braddock Road and Route 123. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets $23-$46. 888-945-2468.

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