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Originally published Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Choreographer Mark Morris returns home with new work

An interview with world-renowned choreographer Mark Morris, who returns to his native city May 1-3 for three performances with the Seattle Symphony.

Seattle Times arts writer

On the Internet

Mark Morris Dance Group: www.markmorrisdancegroup.org

Dance

"Mozart Dances"

Mark Morris Dance Group with Seattle Symphony and pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki, conducted by Stefan Asbury, presented by Seattle Theatre Group, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. next Sunday, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $35-$75 (1-800-745-3000 or www.theparamount.com)

Conversation

Mark Morris and Peter Boal

The artistic directors of Mark Morris Dance Group and Pacific Northwest Ballet discuss their work, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (RSVP strongly recommended: e-mail Liz Young at lizy@stgpresents.org).

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Mark Morris, perched in a corner suite of Seattle's Mayflower Park Hotel, springs up to open a window for a breath of cool spring air. Settling back down, he starts to talk about "Mozart Dances," his 2006 work coming to the Paramount Theatre on Friday — only to be immediately distracted.

"Ooh, I smell a bakery suddenly. Right? Do you smell that? I just got a beautiful fresh-bread smell! Wow, that's great."

He pauses briefly. And follows with a droll reflection: "For a window to open in a hotel — that's already a miracle."

Seattle native Morris, who graduated from Franklin High School, has been pulling unlikely miracles from small moments, humble gestures and wayward attitude for nearly 30 years now. The Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group, with its blend of blithe lightness and shadowy intensity, is a leader in modern dance, and work by its 52-year-old leader is in demand at dance companies around the world.

Serious stuff.

Still, there's a prankish, elfin aspect to Morris' personality. When we met at the Mayflower Park earlier this month, his curly hair was cropped short and he was garbed in an olive-green sarong and a brown cotton top accessorized with a pale bead necklace. He looked like a blend of animated imp and South Seas guru.

He talks in a rush, and the rhythms of his speech reflect the busy, burbling rhythms of his dances. By all accounts, we're in for something special with "Mozart Dances." Joan Acocella, writing for The New Yorker two years ago, called it "the most grave and lovely piece Morris had made in years ... an utter thrill."

"Mozart Dances" was co-commissioned by New York's Mostly Mozart festival and New Crowned Hope, a Vienna arts festival curated by Peter Sellars. Sellars had the odd idea of soliciting new works inspired by the final year of Mozart's life, without including any actual Mozart on the program.

But Morris wanted to do Mozart: "My original notion was to do three different concertos of a horn and a clarinet and a piano. Something like that. Then I decided, no, let's just completely immerse in piano music." Pianist Emanuel Ax's eagerness to collaborate with Morris was key. He and his wife, Yoko Nozaki, premiered the work at Lincoln Center in 2006.

Center of "big evening"

"Mozart Dances" consists of three sections. The opener, "Eleven," is set to Piano Concerto No. 11, a lesser-known work ("very lovely," says Morris). "Twenty-seven," which closes the show, is set to Mozart's last piano concerto, No. 27, in a nod to Sellars' end-of-life theme. "Double," set to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos ("an amazing, miraculous piece of music"), is the dance's centerpiece. Morris sees the whole "big evening" as expanding out from the slow, central movement of the sonata.

Garrick Ohlsson and Nozaki will be doing piano duty. The Seattle Symphony, conducted by Stefan Asbury, provides the orchestral backdrop. Paintings by Howard Hodgkin serve as scenic design. ("He's a brilliant colorist," Morris says with bright perversity. "So I love that there's hardly any color in these.")

Since 2006, other pianists — Ohlsson, Ursula Oppens — have put their stamp on the music. "And that's interesting," Morris says. "You have to keep listening — which is the whole point of working with real musicians."

As for what "Mozart Dances" is about, Morris won't give a pat answer.

"I would say, 'The subject line is empty.' I don't decide what it's about. The music is what it's about."

"What I do," he stresses, "is a take on the music. I could make up another dance to the same music and have it be a completely different dance. It's not like it's there and I have to scrape off the barnacles, or that nonsense about Michelangelo chipping something away to find the sculpture — that's ridiculous. That's a movie scenario."

In a similar way, the dancers' moves are a variable, too. "There are certain things that people don't have to do the exact same way every night — just like the pianist doesn't have to ornament the same way. We like him to surprise us. But there's no full-on improvisation in this piece. ... It's very thoroughly composed," Morris insists. "The evening adds up to something that seems quite dramatic and situational in a way that people respond to very strongly. But there isn't a story line I can tell you."

Even without an overt narrative, the work isn't abstract. "They're people," Morris says of his dancers. "So they're not shapes. They're not ideas. They're physical humans who automatically have a history and a personality and relationship because they're onstage and they're dancing at you, or they're dancing with someone else."

Public conversation

"Mozart Dances" isn't the only Morris event on the calendar this week. On Tuesday, Morris will be having a public chat with Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) artistic director Peter Boal. His feelings about Boal are upbeat — "I like him, I think he's great" — and he looks forward to as-yet-unspecified collaborations on new work with PNB, depending on funding availability.

As for the fiscal health of Mark Morris Dance Group, Morris is cautiously optimistic, despite the economic downturn: "We have a whole lot of work this year, because we saw it coming and we're touring all the time. And we make money when we tour. But contributions are down, and I'm a little scared about presenting organizations who are, in the next few seasons, going to have a problem. ... It's going to be creepy and crappy for a while."

Still, he has confidence in the new presidential administration.

"As bizarre and catastrophic as everything seems to be," he says, "at least it's not evil. That helps."

He notes with glee that the Obama family recently attended a Washington, D.C., performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "It's like, 'Oh, my God! — they accidentally went to a show.' It's so wonderful. It's delightful. ... So I have high hopes."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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