Uncompromising Mark Morris Dance Group takes to Meany stage

Mark Morris Dance Group performs 'Words.' (Photo by Ani Collier.)
Mark Morris Dance Group performs ‘Words.’ (Photo by Ani Collier.)

Mark Morris Dance Group — founded by renowned Seattle-born contemporary choreographer Mark Morris — will take the stage at Seattle’s Meany Theater Thursday through Sunday.

The program includes “Pacific,” along with three Seattle premieres: “Jenn and Spencer,” “Crosswalk” and “Words.”

Morris, who formed Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City in 1980, works from his own experiences.

“I don’t need influences,” Morris said by telephone from New York. “I listen to music. I read. I work with my dancers … I travel. I live. I have a life — and that’s where my work comes from.”

The prolific Morris has created nearly 150 works for Mark Morris Dance Group, as well as close to 20 ballets for companies all over the world. In addition, Morris has collaborated with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, musician Yo-Yo Ma and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, among others.

Morris choreographs four or five dances at a time, he said. He is scheduled to premiere works for Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre this year.

Music is the inspiration for Morris’ creative process.

“I always start with music,” Morris said. “There’s a lot of music out there. So I listen to music. I go to concerts. I read music.

“I decide from that. I’m listening to music all the time. I listen to music because I love it and … I listen to more music than I choreograph.”

Music and Dance

“I believe he’s a great musician,” UW World Series artistic director Michelle Witt said. “For [Morris], the music comes first, and so all of his work is highly, highly musical.”

Morris works with a wide range of music, which comes through in his choreography.

“The understanding that he brings, it is really a very subtle understanding of musical forms, whether they are traditional classical or romantic structures, or whether they are more contemporary structures,” Witt said. “And he captures not just the structures, but he captures the spirit of the piece — and it’s never heavy-handed, which is his brilliance.

“His works are very sensitively done. They’re never obvious … never derivative.”

Morris is fiercely passionate about pairing dance with live musical accompaniment. Live music became so important to Morris that he formed Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble in 1996, and the company has been touring with its own musicians ever since.

Why is Morris so insistent on live musical accompaniment? He turns the question around.

“Why don’t people use live music?” Morris said.

“It’s more expensive,” he said. “[But] if you want it, you can have it.”

“[Recorded music] is a real cheat and that isn’t good enough,” Morris said. “Everyone should be alive as far as I’m concerned.”

Morris’ commitment to live music carries over into rehearsals.

“I only rehearse with piano,” Morris said. “I don’t want to use any recording with my work, ever.”

The Program

Morris choreographed “Pacific” for the San Francisco Ballet in 1995. It was set on the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2007. “Pacific” features nine dancers with music for the piece, “Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano,” composed by Morris’ good friend Lou Harrison. The female and male dancers perform in long billowy skirts designed by Tony Award-winner Martin Pakledinaz.

“Jenn and Spencer,” a duet for a man and a woman, is set to “Suite for Violin and Piano,” by the American composer Henry Cowell. “[The] gorgeous piano…music is complex and rich,” Witt said.

“Crosswalk” features costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman’s bold colors: a trio of women in bright orange and a chorus of eight men in blue trousers and white T-shirts. It is set to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano, Op. 48.” “[There are] a lot of patterns of symmetry and asymmetry in this piece,” Witt said.

“Words,” performed by 18 dancers, is set to 10 of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.” Costume designer Maile Okamura puts the dancers in colorful tops paired with shorts. In this, [Morris] uses almost a very simple dance vocabulary,” Witt said. “And it’s a very poetic work.”

World Dance Series

More information: Meany Theater, 4140 George Washington Lane NE, University of Washington, Seattle, 206-543-4880, 800-859-5342 or http://uwworldseries.org/events-tickets/by-series/1.

Mark Morris Dance Group (USA) 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (March 5-7); $53-$58.

Lyon Opera Ballet (France), under the art direction of Yorgos Loukos, will perform William Forsythe’s “Steptext” (set to the music of J.S. Bach), Emanuel Gat’s “Sunshine” and Benjamin Millipied’s “Sarabande.” 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (April 16-18); $47-$52.

Pilobolus Dance Theater (USA) returns to Seattle for their eighth UW World Series appearance. Their performance will feature “On The Nature Of Things,” “All Is Not Lost,” “Automaton,” “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” and “Sweet Purgatory” (program contains partial nudity). 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday (May 14-16); $51-$56.

Studio Series

More information: Meany Studio Theater, 4140 George Washington Lane NE, University of Washington, Seattle, 206-543-4880, 800-859-5342 or http://uwworldseries.org/events-tickets/by-series/11.

Delfos Danza Contemporanea, Mexico’s leading contemporary dance company, debuts in Seattle with “Cuando los Disfraces se Cuelgan” (When the Disguises are Hung Up), which combines dance, music, video and computer animation. 7:30 p.m. Thursday- Saturday (April 9-11); $30.

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