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.