Precision Peccadillos

Modern dance's bad-boy perfectionist returns.

Mark Morris brings his dance troupe to Centennial Hall this weekend for one performance only. A choreographer at the very top of his art (with 18 bravura dancers to match), Morris has evolved from modern dance's enfant terrible to its most eminent practitioner. The Seattle native began his eponymous troupe in New York in 1980, and he has since choreographed some 100 dances, directed opera, picked up the McArthur genius award, and co-founded the White Oak Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

A prickly perfectionist who almost always insists on live music for his performances, in Tucson Morris is allowing recordings to accompany two pieces, "Resurrection" and "A Lake," only because the music demands a full orchestra. Otherwise, the dancers will be accompanied by live piano (on the solo "Peccadillos" and the male quartet "Foursome"), and on the finale, "V," 14 dancers will move to Schumann's Quintet in E-Flat for piano and strings.

Herewith, an interview with Morris unvarnished.

TW: What can you tell me about the program?

MM: For "Resurrection" the music is "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from On Your Toes by Richard Rodgers. It's a dance for 14 people. And it's a very brief, big number. We have to do it there on tape, because it's for a very big orchestra and it's very short. We actually filmed it for a television show with the Boston Pops.

Richard Rodgers? I don't remember that show.

On Your Toes. It's well known; it's from the '30s. Balanchine choreographed it originally. Ray Bolger was in it. It was a big deal. There've been revivals of it.

"Resurrection" is a big, fun piece?

I don't decide those things.

OK. How old is it?

Just a few months old. It debuted on TV and at the American Dance Festival (in Durham, N.C.) this summer.

The costumes are by Isaac Mizrahi. What do they look like?

I'm not telling you that.

You're not?

They're beautiful. They're basically black and white. Everyone's in a different pattern.

What else?

"Peccadillos" (2000). That's a solo that I do. The music is Erik Satie, performed on a toy piano. Mr. Baryshnikov was doing it for a while as well, with White Oak.

Are you still doing stuff with White Oak?

They still have some dances of mine in repertory but they're not doing them right now. They're on a tour right now doing some new stuff.

Is "Peccadillos" the only piece you'll be dancing?

No, I'll be dancing in "Foursome" (2002) as well. It's a quartet for four men, to the piano music of Satie and Hummel, who was a wonderful composer from the early 19th century who isn't remembered very well except for a few pieces. It's the Three Gnossiennes of Satie and these Hungarian dances for piano by Hummel. There's pretty much every possible duet out of the four people and some quartets. They're very brief, very simple dances.

What about "V"?

"V" (2001) is a big dance for 14 people again, and that's to the Schumann piano quintet. "A Lake" (1991)--I made that for my company and White Oak at the same time. That's to a Haydn horn concerto so it's in three movements. Ten people are in that. It's pretty much a certain neoclassical, fabulously beautiful dance. "A Lake" won't have live music, because it's for orchestra and a horn soloist. We can't travel with that.

If it's a smaller piece with a smaller number of musicians, you always have live music?

We mostly have live music to everything. Lately because of a couple of pieces in the repertory I've consented to do those to recordings.

Why is it important to use live music?

Because that's what music is. (Otherwise) it's like watching a videotape of dancing. Why would you not want live musicians? How is it better not to have that?

Everybody thinks it's better, but hardly anybody does it.

I don't think everybody thinks it's better. It's a pain in the ass, it's expensive, and it's complicated. You have to very interested in music, or why bother? If you want it to be exactly the same every time, you should use a recording. A lot of people aren't all that interested in music.

A lot of choreographers?


In your biography by Joan Acocella (Mark Morris, Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1993) she quotes a comment from you, "Ballet is our Latin."

That's the grammar we use. I use ballet class for my company class. The logic of it and the symmetry of it are very important for everybody who's dancing.

Are you on a big tour?

We're not on the road. We just go to Tucson and come back. We usually just go out for a few weeks at a time.

Do you have a New York season?

Usually we do a spring season. This year we're doing A Hard Nut (a 1960s-style comic book version of The Nutcracker) this December at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It's in Berkeley every year; this time we're doing it at BAM. We're doing a season in March, two programs also at BAM.

They must be disappointed in Berkeley.

Yeah. I think it's fine. We're going back next year; it's all set. Skipping one year I think is (OK). I'm happy to do it in New York; we couldn't do it in both places.

Tell me about your new center in Brooklyn.

We've been in there for a year and a half. It's going great. It's very beautiful and it's perfect for what we do. We rehearse and we have a school that's going quite well, mostly kids more than adults. We have classes offered all the time. We rehearse there. We have subsidized rental for other dance companies; they work there very cheaply. It's really happening. It's a wonderful sort of community.

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