Mark Morris Dance Group brings 3 area premieres to George Mason’s Center for the Arts


The Mark Morris Dance Group will perform “Italian Concerto” at GMU’s Center for the Arts with a live accompaniment of Bach’s piece of the same name. (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

Choreographer Mark Morris has no time or patience for mediocrity. If he goes to a show with canned music and subpar footwork, he doesn’t go back.

Audiences have become used to “bad music on bad recordings and dances that are underwhelming and stuff that’s just not very high quality,” Morris says by phone from his home in New York. “And that’s a fact that I live with when I decide not to go back to the ballet because the program was so bad or the music was so bad.”

Morris might see middling skills and unimaginative music choices as an epidemic in performing arts, but he insists none of that will be on display when he brings a mixed-repertory program to George Mason University.

“It’s not, ‘Everything is a piece of s--- and come and see my fabulous show,’ but I wouldn’t make up dances if I just wanted them to fit into the mediocre general culture of art in the United States,” Morris says. “I’m interested in excellence and transparency and honesty and a very, very high quality of performance, and that’s what people get from my concerts. Whether you like it or not — I hope you do — but you can’t say it was badly done, because we don’t do anything badly. ”

That may sound extraordinarily self- assured, but Morris, 57, has the credentials to back it up. The former dancer, who also choreographs for the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre when he isn’t working with his own troupe, is a music expert as well. He has directed the Metropolitan Opera and the 2013 Ojai Music Festival — following in the footsteps of Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, among others — and nearly all of his works feature accompaniment by the group’s own ensemble. He takes great care when it comes to music selection, which is another area he finds lacking these days.

“Everyone can do whatever the hell they want, but I don’t need one more dance to that Arvo Pärt piece that everybody does,” he says. “It’s a very low imagination in general I find.”

Morris has been busy lately. In the past 18 months, he has choreographed the duet “Jenn and Spencer,” the athletic group piece “Crosswalk” and “A Wooden Tree,” which debuted at the end of 2012 with Mikhail Baryshnikov and seven other dancers. All three will have their area premieres this weekend at George Mason.

Morris recently stumbled upon the music for “Jenn and Spencer” (Henry Cowell’s “Suite for Violin and Piano”) and “A Wooden Tree” (a rare recording of Scottish singer and humorist Ivor Cutler). But “Crosswalk” is set to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Grand Duo Concertant for Clarinet and Piano (Op. 48),” which Morris has known for decades.

“It’s very virtuosic, a very, very fine composition, and if you can’t play it, don’t play it,” he says matter-of-factly. That straight-shooting attitude and perfectionism have always informed Morris’s work with his company.

Dancer Billy Smith credits time and tenacity for the group’s acclaim. The George Mason alum and Fredericksburg native, who joined the company as an apprentice in 2010 and will perform in “Crosswalk” at GMU’s Center for the Arts, says Morris takes his time when creating a new work, makes sure everything is just so, and doesn’t rush the dancers.

“I think more than anything it’s persistence that makes him a great teacher,” Smith says by phone from New York. “He rarely gives up. He just keeps pushing you until you understand what’s happening and what he wants from you.”

Another perk of working with Morris, Smith says, is the live music. With the exception of large, traditional ballet companies, troupes rarely have in-house musicians.

“It keeps the work fresh,” he says. “You’re not performing to the same recorded track over and over again. [It’s] being performed live there, and it influences you every second in a different way.”

Morris clearly has high standards for his dancers and musicians, but don’t think the audience is off the hook.

“The experience of living music and living dancing is very unfortunately underrepresented lately,” Morris says. “To listen and watch at the same time is already a gigantic request, a gigantic requirement of the audience.

“I don’t decide what people expect or need. I just want people to come and openly listen and watch.”

Mark Morris Dance Group

Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4373 Mason Pond Dr., Fairfax. 888-945-2468. www.cfa.gmu.edu. $23-$46.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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