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Mark Morris taking dance works into the music world

MAKING INROADS: Mark Morris Dance Group is slated to perform "Empire Garden," set to the music of Charles Ives, when the dancers come to George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Feb. 5 and 6.
MAKING INROADS: Mark Morris Dance Group is slated to perform "Empire Garden," set to the music of Charles Ives, when the dancers come to George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Feb. 5 and 6. (Mark Morris Dance Group)

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Any business knows the value of diversifying its customer base. The arts yearn for that, with mixed success. Mark Morris has achieved it.

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Morris is not content simply to tour the standard dance venues with his Mark Morris Dance Group, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall. He also takes his works beyond dance boundaries . . . into the music world.

His modern dance troupe is the only dance company that performs at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where Morris is a frequent guest artist. Why is a choreographer coaching the festival's music fellows alongside cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax?

"I'm a musician," Morris said by phone from his company's Brooklyn headquarters, "and my medium is dancing."

Now, there's a twist -- with an undeniable logic to it. Morris, whose works blend exquisite craftsmanship with reined-in passion, neither plays an instrument nor sings. Yet he reads music, has directed operas and has conducted for his own shows. More to the point, his works are marked by an astute musical sensitivity. Among Morris's greatest works is "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," named for the Handel oratorio that accompanies it; in April, his troupe will perform it at the London Coliseum under the auspices of an opera producing company there.

Making inroads into music venues doesn't just net Morris more gigs. "There are more people there," he says. "Music is a very big world and dance is a very small one."

Some of the fruits of his expansion will be on view Feb. 5 and 6 at his longtime favorite local haunt, George Mason University's Center for the Arts. On tap are two works that premiered at Tanglewood last year: "Visitation," set to Beethoven, and "Empire Garden," to Charles Ives. Of course, at Tanglewood, Morris had his pals Ma and Ax in the pit. In Fairfax, the music will still be live, but with different players. (In May, another Morris work: The Washington Ballet performs his "Pacific," with music by Lou Harrison.)

There's another plus to putting his dances before a music audience. Those folks, Morris says, are more open to experimentation than the more conservative dance fans. One example: the mixed-to-scathing reviews received for his "Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare," a spare, intimate treatment using the small-scale first draft of Prokofiev's famous ballet score. Music audiences, he says, have been more open to new thinking about a familiar work.

"Everybody freaks out if someone presents a version of a [ballet] classic, a 'Giselle' or a 'La Sylphide,' that doesn't toe the line that all the experts preserve," Morris says. "Whereas in opera, people would go crazy if you kept presenting the same old things."

Happily, the same old thing isn't a problem with Morris. But he's right: The risk-averse dance crowd can stand to learn from its more adventurous music-loving counterparts. "Watch and discuss, instead of annul," Morris says. "That's my suggestion for the dance world: Open up."


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