In the world of choreographer Mark Morris, live music is key

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; C01

At least on this tour, the cello doesn't need a plane ticket.

When the Mark Morris Dance Group has its one-night-only performance Saturday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, five musicians will have traveled along with the dancers to Fairfax from the company's headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. By bus.

That was the easy part. Hotel arrangements were a touch more complicated: The violinists' rooms had to be far from Morris's, so they could rehearse in the early morning while he had some quiet.

Saturday's lunch at the theater will have to be staged in two waves: midday for the musicians, who will eat after their sound check, and later for the dancers, who'll dine following their afternoon class.

Oh, and did somebody find a page-turner for the pianist?

This is what you have to think about when you're that rare gem in the dance world: a company that performs to live music -- with its own musicians, even on tour. When Morris's troupe traveled to Russia in March, the basses could be checked as baggage, but the group had to purchase extra passenger tickets for the three cellos. (The cellos could not be seated in the emergency rows, but they did accrue frequent-flier miles.) Violas were stowed in the overhead compartments -- but one didn't fit, and a flight attendant had to be persuaded to store it in a closet reserved for the crew.

Morris's extraordinary commitment to live music comes at a cost. But it transforms his performances and enriches the experience immeasurably. If you're a dance fan, and especially if you're a patron of modern dance, you have no doubt endured punishing sound systems and unpleasant volume levels in even the best theaters -- not to mention the flat, cold sound quality you get from even the finest large-scale amplification of canned music.

Live music is wildly expensive, inconvenient and an organizational hassle.

All worth it, says Morris. Recorded music is phony. Dead.

"Doctored and fixed and repaired," he adds, dismissively.

"Why would I expect the music not to be alive when the dancers are alive and the audience is alive?" he asked earlier this week in Brooklyn, seated in his office overlooking a rainy Flatbush Avenue. There's merriment in his pale blue eyes, even paler than the silvery hair curling at his temples.

The five-story Mark Morris Dance Center is an oasis of serene white walls, pale wood floors and natural light, where the company rehearses and classes are offered to the community. But his office is a party: The walls are a dazzling lime green. Wooden carnival masks gape down at us. There's a gleaming tub in the adjacent bathroom, ringed invitingly with rubber duckies. This is the domain of a man with exuberant appetites -- for color, richness and fun.

Music is a part of that energy. Morris's works have always been known for their musical sensitivity, whether the accompaniment is Chopin etudes or the Western swing of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The George Mason program features three works: "Visitation," danced to Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 in C, Op. 102, No. 1; "Empire Garden," danced to Charles Ives's Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano; and "V," to Schumann's Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44.

"Visitation" and "Empire Garden" premiered last year at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where Morris's troupe is the only dance company to perform. It's a heady atmosphere: Morris typically collaborates with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Colin Jacobsen. (In Fairfax, there will be different players.)

All of which means Morris has built up a following of music lovers as well as dance groupies. Live music, and particularly live interesting music, expands his reach -- and marketability. It also makes his group more expensive to book; it has had to accept lower fees in the current economic climate, and will run a deficit next year for the first time in its 30-year history.

But there's no thought of ditching the musicians.

Live music "absolutely changes everything about the show, every time, every second," Morris says.

It's a luxury most dance companies of this size can't afford. There are other companies that may travel with live music: flamenco groups, Indian dancers, foreign groups that are funded by their home countries. But nowadays musicians are too expensive for most U.S.-based touring troupes to take along.

"I'm often surprised at how many presenters will say to us, 'Can't you just do it to tape?' " says Nancy Umanoff, Mark Morris Dance Group's executive director. "Would you go to the opera and watch a film? We perceive it as that closely connected."

There are risks: Rita Donahue, a seven-year veteran of the company and a former George Mason student, remembers a performance of "All Fours," to Bartok's String Quartet No. 4, where the violist broke a string.

"She just sat out the first movement, then she left," says Donahue. "Mark was in the audience, and he came down to the stage and told everyone, 'A string broke! Dancers, just relax!' And we waited for her to get it fixed."

Dance audiences are so unaccustomed to live music that hearing it can be a shock. "You go to an opera, and there's an orchestra and singers," Morris says. "You go to a dance and there's some crappy laptop playing something."

Not here. In the large studio just under the building's metal roof, the rain's drumbeat is soon drowned out by the grand piano. Morris is rehearsing "The Muir," a 20-minute dance to nine of Beethoven's arrangements of Scottish and Irish folk songs, scored for violin, cello and piano. His group will premiere it, with singers, in two weeks at Tanglewood.

Morris settles into his chair facing the six dancers. Though seated, he seems to have the highest energy level of anyone in the room.

"Stop!" he cries out. The three dancers who have been springing side by side freeze. Morris swipes his hand through the air and they instantly respond, making their line flat to the front, rather than angled.

"Go," he says, and the pianist starts up again.

"Stop!" a moment later. "As adorable as it is to run like a frisky 7-year-old, don't," he chides one dancer. The stopping and going continue for about 40 minutes, with Morris continually paring the movement down, getting the dancers to simplify and reduce. At last, he has the dancers run through the piece from beginning to end, minus the falls to the ground. No one should overdo it this close to showtime -- but their intentions must be clear.

"Easily and accurately," he instructs them.

The room buzzes. In the opening section, the emphasis is on the downbeat, but the arms are held proud and high. The effect is at once full and light. At times Morris claps along with the music, or whistles. Mostly he joins his baritone to the pianist's soprano.

"She is the darling of my heart . . . " he croons, as dancer Laurel Lynch leaves her partner, Dallas McMurray, and McMurray gazes after her. Then he turns his back to us and claws the air in a curiously poignant, bestial impulse that figures in the piece a few times.

"Heartbroken," Morris calls out to him. "Not a [expletive] dance!"

Exuberance. Authenticity. The singing, the dancing, the piano, the energy of this swinging, simple, lacerating dance. It's not only the dancing that makes the room vibrate; it's not simply the music. It's the whole experience.

Not just live. It's life.

Mark Morris Dance Group

performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Call 703-993-8888 or visit

© 2010 The Washington Post Company