In the 37 years since he founded his dance company, Mark Morris has been a dancer, a choreographer and even a conductor, on occasion. Now he is taking on a new role, for the Mark Morris Dance Group’s upcoming performances at George Mason University: baritone.
For both shows, on Feb. 24 and 25, Morris will sing the medley of deliciously risqué songs from the 1920s and ’30s that accompany “Dancing Honeymoon,” a sly romp he created nearly 20 years ago. The songs, including “Wild Thyme,” “Do Do Do” “And Her Mother Came, Too,” were made famous by Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan, two of the era’s beloved British entertainers. The lyrics are a wee bit dirty, if you listen closely, but they’re also charming, clever and witty.
So is the dancing. This is one of Morris’s funniest works. That’s the part he’d rather talk about, instead of his singing.
“It’s not like a showboating thing,” he insists, speaking by phone from his company’s dance center in Brooklyn. “It’s not like, at long last I’m making my singing debut. I don’t want a standing ovation. I’m just singing with the band.”
Still, the singing choreographer is a pretty rare thing. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly come to mind; like Morris, both men had pleasant but not conventionally ideal voices. Morris, 60, acknowledges that his range is rather narrow, but that suits the “Dancing Honeymoon” material. Lawrence’s own range was small. Known as “the glorious Gertie,” and considered by many to be the first international superstar, she was a great performer rather than a great singer. But she didn’t let that stop her.
Morris has always loved to sing. Growing up in Seattle, he sang at home with his family. His parents were big-band fans, and that’s when he heard the vintage pop songs that would inspire “Dancing Honeymoon.” He sang in the chorus all through school. Singing made Sundays bearable: “When I was forced to go to church, which I detested, I sang in the choir.”
After he joined a Balkan folk-dance group as a teenager, he sang Croatian and Serbian music. Later, his passion for choral music led him to create some of his most masterful dance works, such as the exquisite evening-length meditation on states of being, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” accompanied by the Handel oratorio of the same name, and “Dido and Aeneas,” a dance-drama accompanied by the Henry Purcell opera. (Morris will conduct when his group performs “Dido” at Brooklyn Academy of Music next month.) Vocals have inspired several other Morris works, and he has directed numerous operas.
He recently began a weekly singing period with his dancers, as part of their cross-training. They sing together after lunch.
“It’s so good for people to sing,” Morris says. “People get along better when they sing together. And it teaches you another thing about breathing. And it’s fun.”
But singing in public? Morris had to screw up his courage for that. The past couple of times “Dancing Honeymoon” was in the repertory, in 2011 and 2002, he was tempted to sing — but only briefly.
“I auditioned myself and I was too scared,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d do it well enough.” This time, he auditioned for his longtime executive director, Nancy Umanoff, and got a qualified go-ahead. “She said, ‘Yeah, if you practice.’ ”
He has been practicing.
“It’s nervous-making,” Morris admits. “I’ve been rehearsing enough, and I have the [guts] enough to sing it. I have a pretty good voice. I’m not a nightmare.”
Morris is famed for his commitment to live music for all performances — a wonderful thing, and so unusual that it sets his company apart among modern-dance groups. His troupe travels with its own music ensemble. (At George Mason, in the pit along with Morris will be a pianist, violinist and percussionist.) In addition to “Dancing Honeymoon,” the Mark Morris Dance Group will perform the solo “Serenade,” set to the Serenade for Guitar and Percussion by the late Lou Harrison, one of Morris’s favorite composers and a friend. Two new works complete the program: “A Forest,” with music by another Morris favorite, Haydn (his Piano Trio no. 44 in E), and “Pure Dance Items,” with Indian-influenced music by the American composer Terry Riley (from his “Salome Dances for Peace”).
By the way, this is only the second venue where Morris will sing, and his dancers will perform, in “Dancing Honeymoon.” The first was last month at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This will be the last, for now. The company has no plans to stage the work in the near future.
Along with vocals, Morris has always had a fondness for world music — which he prefers simply to call “music” — and his latest, grandest project combines both. It’s an evening-length work titled “Layla and Majnun,” based on a classic Persian love story, which was turned into a 1908 opera by the Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov. For Morris’s dance-drama, the music is performed in a chamber arrangement by the Silk Road Ensemble. Renowned Azerbaijani vocalists Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova also perform in this work, along with other Azerbaijani singers and musicians. It premiered last fall in Berkeley, Calif., and will tour nationally and internationally. (The Kennedy Center is among the commissioners.)
About a decade ago, cellist Yo-Yo Ma had asked Morris about turning it into a stage production. Morris was inclined, but didn’t think it was the right time. “I didn’t want it to be airport-giftshop multiculturalism,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Aladdin’ on Broadway.”
So Morris put the idea aside until he could research it properly. Along the way, an Islamic love story began to feel pretty hot.
“This is probably a good time to do it, because everyone is so insanely f----- up about Islam,” he says. “But as I said the first day of rehearsal, this is not in any way a political corrective. It’s not a cure for what I perceive is ailing us.” It’s simply, he says, “very, very beautiful, sad, tender and romantic.”
“I never felt this was dangerous territory. I just waited till I knew more and understood more.”
Mark Morris Dance Group Feb. 24 and 25 at George Mason University. Visit cfa.gmu.edu.