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Monday, May 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Dance with an attitude

Special to The Seattle Times

Every season Seattle-area audiences vie for tickets to see the terrific Mark Morris Dance Group perform Morris' distinctively beautiful choreography, often accompanied by top-quality musicians. The phones are ringing for the upcoming MMDG performances at the Meany later this week.

Morris turns 50 this year, and his company, now housed in the luxurious multistory Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York, celebrates its 25th anniversary with revivals of his early work and performances around the world.

Seattle-born Morris, once known as the "bad boy" of modern dance because of that penchant for outspokenness, has now achieved an almost iconic status. He still retains, however, an irreverent forthrightness in interviews — though he undercuts his most opinionated statements with a disarming, irresistible giggle.

"You can't just drop a dance onto music," Morris says, referencing the complicated rehearsal schedule with high-profile musicians that will be needed to prepare for New York's Mostly Mozart Festival, where he'll premiere three big pieces with music from pianist Emmanuel Ax in August.

"Well you can. A lot of crappy choreographers do that, but if you're a good one who pays attention to music, and needs it, then you can't."

Then there's the topic of commissions; a piece Morris originally created for the San Francisco Ballet is on the schedule of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet for 2007.

"I don't ever do a commissioned dance for a company that hasn't done a piece of mine first. I would need to know if they do my work well enough." Morris says that it is only now that Peter Boal has become director of PNB that he is comfortable with having the company do one of his pieces.

Coming up

Mark Morris Dance Group, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Meany Theater, University of Washington campus; $45 (206-543-4880 or

"The fact of me being from Seattle isn't reason enough for me to choreograph a piece for a ballet company in Seattle. That's a sort of nostalgic reason that I'm immune to. I don't think that way. If I like the company and they can afford it, I'll consider doing a piece and that's really how it goes."

Morris continues: "For example I will never work with New York City Ballet because Peter Martins has ruined the company. ... And if they can't take care of [George] Balanchine's work, they're sure not going to get a piece from me!"

Seattle fans will be disappointed that Morris himself will not be dancing in the program here. Despite the regular-guy beer paunch he's grown in the last few years, Morris is still a breathtakingly compelling dancer.

He hasn't quit dancing either, he says, refuting a claim in a recent Joan Acocella article in The New Yorker. "No, it's not true. I'll dance when I want to. I just don't very much. But I never told her I would never dance again. She made that up!"

Morris as a choreographer is sometimes compared to Balanchine for the scale of his pieces and for his intense responsiveness to music. This musicality, when combined with a bawdy, visceral quality, with rigorous structuring, and a deep sense of humanity and wit, make Morris one of the most interesting choreographers of his generation.

Two of the pieces he is bringing to Meany, his 2005 "Cargo" to music by Darius Milhaud, and his 1985 "Gloria" to Vivaldi, he unhappily reports will be performed with recorded music. However, he says, cheering up, the other two dances, as is more usual for his company, will be accompanied by musicians and singers.

These will be the 1995 "Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight," to Stephen Foster songs; and the 2004 "Rock of Ages," to an adagio from a Franz Schubert piano trio.

Music is an essential element in Morris' dances; he choreographs score in hand. His preference for live music, however, does make his company very expensive to present. Although Meany's UW World Series has been bringing the Mark Morris Dance Group to Seattle faithfully every season for 15 years, it won't be back next year. The cost, according to Meany's Matt Krashan, has gotten prohibitive.

"Of course it would be terrific if we could get someone to step in and sponsor the company. This theater has always been a fabulous place to see them," Krashan said.

But Seattle audiences do have that PNB piece to look forward to. "Pacific," to music by Lou Harrison, will be featured in PNB's 2007 April program.

In addition to reviving works from his company for the 25th anniversary season and the Mostly Mozart piece in August, Morris is creating another full-length piece this summer. His Henry Purcell "King Arthur," with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, will be performed with the English National Opera in June. "I've been working on it for a year, maybe, but I've been studying the music for about 10," Morris says.

That means Morris has two full-length premieres in the same year as a 25-year anniversary celebration that has put 30 to 35 dances back in the active repertoire. Sounds like a lot of work in a very short time.

But Morris thrives on it. "I love it. I have a wonderful time. It's very hard but it's interesting. As long as it's interesting, I don't mind it being hard."

Mary Murfin Bayley:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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