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Originally published Friday, September 28, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Mark Morris returns to Seattle with 'Back on the Boards'

Mark Morris Dance Group returns to its old Seattle home, On the Boards, with a world premiere, two Seattle premieres and the return of his classic "Grand Duo," Oct. 4-6, 2012.

Seattle Times arts writer

Dance preview

Mark Morris Dance Group

8 p.m. Thursday-Oct. 6, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; sold out.
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Mark Morris Dance Group's show next week is being billed as "Back on the Boards." But some dancers in his troupe weren't even born the last time MMDG performed at Seattle's On the Boards.

That was in 1985 at OtB's old Washington Hall digs, where, throughout the early 1980s, Morris presented new work on a yearly basis. For a couple of years the Seattle-born-and-raised dancer, disenchanted with New York, even moved back here.

But the move didn't work out, he said in an interview in Seattle in late August, "because I had to go back to New York to go on tour anyway."

Morris fans have gotten used to seeing him at Meany Theater, the Paramount and what he calls "the scary Moore Theatre — which I actually like as a theater to watch, but it's just sort of ghastly backstage." This time around he's in a much smaller space — OtB's 300-seat Mainstage Theater — with a program that includes a world premiere ("A Wooden Tree"), two Seattle premieres ("Petrichor," "The Muir") and the return of Morris' classic "Grand Duo," set to music by Lou Harrison.

"A Wooden Tree" is unusual for Morris in that it's performed to recorded music: the songs and poems by Scottish cult humorist Ivor Cutler. Morris is usually adamant about performing to live music. But Cutler (1923-2006) is utterly distinctive in his personality and delivery, and to have a live performer interpret his tunes, Morris believes, wouldn't make sense.

"He's unbelievable," he says. "The little stories, the little poems, the beautiful little songs ... I could transcribe it and have somebody perform it. But, no."

Morris first encountered Cutler's work in 2009 at a Scottish dance-and-music showcase where he was debuting "Cease Your Funning" (a piece, performed to Beethoven settings of traditional Scottish folk tunes, that was later developed into "The Muir").

Ashley Page, then director of Scottish Ballet, had used Cutler's tunes in a piece at the festival, and Morris' reaction upon first hearing them was immediate: "I just fell for this music and decided that this was the perfect time and place to do a recorded piece."

There's a lot of Cutler to choose from, so Morris won't be using the same playlist as Page. As of late August, he hadn't made his final selection, but it seems safe to say that Cutler's song "A Wooden Tree" (easily tracked down on YouTube) will be part of the program.

Cutler is scarcely known here, but give one listen to "A Wooden Tree" and it's obvious what prompted BBC disc jockey John Peel to invite Cutler repeatedly onto his program and Paul McCartney to ask Cutler to be in the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" (as bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel, who encourages his passengers to enjoy themselves "within the limits of British decency").

A small stage made sense for "A Wooden Tree," Morris says, because it has a small cast and doesn't require live musicians. The rest of the program was guided by the logistics of fitting dance and live music in smaller-than-usual quarters. "The Muir" is for six dancers and piano trio. "Petrichor," set to a Villa-Lobos string quartet, features eight dancers. "Grand Duo" involves 14 dancers and two musicians.

Morris has fond memories of the old On the Boards: "I didn't have any money, and I couldn't pay anybody, and I didn't have time or space, and I made up wonderful programs."

He would teach there for a week or two, he recalls, and then use his students in his pieces. He cites "Canonic ¾ Studies" (1982) as something he came up with in collaboration with anyone willing to stick around after class. "I made it up in maybe five days, and then we performed it. Now," he muses, "it takes a week to teach everybody, and it took less than that to choreograph."

By some lights, Morris' early way of working sounds like the contemporary-dance equivalent of an old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film, where the kids, in impromptu fashion, casually throw a show together. But Morris takes issue with the idea that anything casual or impromptu is necessarily frivolous.

In the movies, he points out, Garland and Rooney were in earnest: "That's why they put on good shows. It wasn't frivolous at all. They were saving somebody's relationship, or saving the farm, the ranch. You know, it was serious business. And it was always serious business to me."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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