Mark Mor­ris of­fers 3 D.C. pre­mieres

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY SARAH KAUF­MAN

When he is in the stu­dio cre­at­ing a dance, chore­og­ra­pher Mark Mor­ris faces no end of de­ci­sions, ques­tions, prob­lems. How does he solve them? Honey, you have no idea. Nei­ther does he. Let’s take “The Of­fice.” No, not that “The Of­fice.” I’m talk­ing about a 1994 dance by Mor­ris, which has noth­ing what­so­ever to do with Scran­ton or that’s-what-she-said jokes. Mor­ris has re­cently brought the work back into his reper­tory af­ter an ab­sence of more than a decade. Lo­cal au­di­ences will see it for the first time when the Mark Mor­ris Dance Group per­forms it and two other Washington pre­mieres next Fri­day and Satur­day at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for the Arts.

“The Of­fice” stands out for a cou­ple of rea­sons. Mor­ris orig­i­nally chore­ographed it not for his own troupe but for a Croa­t­ian folk dance group in Ohio. He started work­ing on it at the height of the war in Bos­nia, and by the time he was

fin­ished with it, he dis­cov­ered he had made some­thing rare and pos­si­bly a first for him: a po­lit­i­cal dance.

“It wasn’t my in­ten­tion,” he says. “But when it was fin­ished it seemed like that.”

Mor­ris’s method is to find a piece of mu­sic he likes, then cre­ate a dance to it, rather than to think of an idea for a dance and then look for mu­sic that fits. In this case, he started with Dvo­rak’s Five Ba­gatelles for Two Vi­o­lins, Cello and Har­mo­nium. (As al­ways, his mu­sic en­sem­ble will per­form it live.) Mor­ris had never made a dance to Dvo­rak be­fore, and he found the har­mo­nium es­pe­cially ap­peal­ing. Used sub­tly, it lends an un­ex­pected hor­ror­movie thrill to the sway­ing folk­dance rhythms.

Re­spond­ing to the mu­sic’s struc­ture, Mor­ris de­cided to have the num­ber of dancers di­min­ish as the piece pro­gresses, so the first sec­tion is a sex­tet, the sec­ond a quin­tet, and so on un­til there is

“I think I have in­ter­est­ing, good taste, and I like it when I can show peo­ple those things.”

Mark Mor­ris

only one dancer left.

But that’s not the only part of the work’s de­sign that sug­gests the grad­ual, chill­ing sweep of death through this lit­tle com­mu­nity of dancers. There is also a char­ac­ter in a busi­ness suit, car- ry­ing a clip­board, who en­ters at the end of each sec­tion and, with crisp, word­less author­ity, es­corts one of the dancers off the stage.

“It’s very, very — what’s the word — am­bigu­ous,” Mor­ris says, speak­ing by phone from his com­pany’s head­quar­ters in Brook­lyn. “You take from it what you will. It has strange, sad over­tones, and there’s the el­e­ment of peo­ple go­ing away as it hap­pens. But that was purely prag­matic when I was chore­ograph­ing it: who was at re­hearsal, who could do what.”

Late in the process, a glim­mer of a nar­ra­tive be­gan to take shape, and Mor­ris added the dancer with the clip­board “in or­der to make it make sense,” he says.

And there it was: a work that in its aus­ter­ity and struc­ture sug­gested the ruth­less, bu­reau­cratic pur­suit of an­ni­hi­la­tion, es­pe­cially given its bits of folk danc­ing, Dvo­rak's melan­choly and the Slavic her­itage of its per­form­ers. Mor­ris ended up in a dif­fer­ent place from where he be­gan, with a work that led the imag­i­na­tion to the atroc­i­ties tak­ing place at the time in the former Yu­goslavia.

Mean­ings are dif­fi­cult for artists to talk about, as the cre­ative process is rarely easy to put into words. For Mor­ris, be­ing asked to de­scribe how he starts from noth­ing and ends up with any given dance is a kind of tor­ture. But he doesn’t mean to be mys­te­ri­ous; the dif­fi­culty comes from an hon­est place. His medium is the body, af­ter all: If he could talk about his ideas, he says, he wouldn’t need to ex­press them in move­ment.

“If it’s about dance, I can’t an­swer it,” Mor­ris says, shrug­ging off such ques­tions with a laugh. “I have to an­swer it through dance.”

Fair enough. Let’s talk about mu­sic.

Mor­ris has lots to say about the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated Aus­trian com­poser Jo­hann Ne­po­muk Hum­mel, whose Pi­ano Trio No. 5 in E ac­com­pa­nies “Fes­ti­val Dance,” which Mor­ris cre­ated in 2011 . It’s also on the Ge­orge Ma­son pro­gram.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t care about Hum­mel; that’s too bad for them,” Mor­ris says. “If other, brighter lights hadn’t sur­faced — he was just post-Haydn and pre-Beethoven — he’d be bet­ter known. It’s won­der­ful, fab­u­lous, very vir­tu­osic mu­sic. Bo­hemian in a folk-dancey kind of way. . . . I found it, I heard it, it struck me and pretty much right away I made up a dance to it.”

What im­pressed him about Hum­mel’s pi­ano trio is that, sim­ply put, it makes you want to dance. With wicked ap­petite, Mor­ris un­der­scores how rare that is.

“Most mu­sic that’s writ­ten es­pe­cially to be danced to is crappy, with the ex­cep­tion of Tchaikovsky and Stravin­sky and a few oth­ers,” he says. “You know, the Minkuses, the Glinkas, the Brahm­ses — the stuff that’s all square and not in­ter­est­ing.

“Take Beethoven, his ‘Crea­tures of Prometheus,’ a bal­let he wrote. It’s like, oh God, you’ve gotta be kid­ding — this is the most aw­ful mu­sic in the world!”

Erik Satie’s “Socrate,” a 30-minute piece for voice and pi­ano that he (per­haps cheek­ily) called a “sym­phonic drama,” may not have been writ­ten for danc­ing, but Mor­ris used it as the spring­board for his “Socrates.” This 2010 work, for 15 dancers, rounds out the up­com­ing pro­gram. The vo­cal text, ex­cerpted from Plato (and sung in French), ends with the story of the philoso­pher’s death from drink­ing poi­son. But the danc­ing only loosely cor­re­sponds; there are su­per­ti­tles to help the au­di­ence fol­low.

It wasn’t just Satie’s light, re­strained mu­sic and the poignant vo­cals that in­spired Mor­ris to cre­ate this piece in 2010. He was also think­ing about the 18th-cen­tury paint­ing “Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art. It shows Socrates about to quaff the fa­tal hem­lock, con­sol­ing his dis­ci­ples af­ter be­ing im­pris­oned for cor­rupt­ing pub­lic moral­ity. “By hav­ing ideas,” Mor­ris adds, acidly.

“Peo­ple walk right by it,” he mut­ters. It’s a “very great” paint­ing.

Mor­ris, if you haven’t no­ticed, is a man of strong opin­ions, whose ex­per­tise runs to plenty of other things be­sides dance. His vast mu­si­cal knowl­edge is a hall­mark of his com­pany, which has led to recog­ni­tion from the mu­sic world. He is on the fac­ulty of the Tan­gle­wood Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, where he will di­rect two op­eras in late sum­mer.

A new chal­lenge awaits in June: That's when Mor­ris de­buts as the mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Ojai Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in Cal­i­for­nia. He has de­signed a week­end of Amer­i­can artists and Amer­i­can mu­sic, in­clud­ing works by Lou Har­ri­son, Henry Cow­ell and John Cage. His com­pany will per­form, as well as the Mark Mor­ris Dance Group Mu­sic En­sem­ble. Mor­ris is also slated to lead a live-band karaoke event.

“He has an in­cred­i­ble sense of ad­ven­ture and fun,” says the fes­ti­val’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Thomas W. Mor­ris (no re­la­tion to the chore­og­ra­pher).

Plus, hir­ing the mu­sic fes­ti­val’s first-ever chore­og­ra­pher-di­rec­tor has made for good box of­fice. “The ticket sales have never been as strong as they are right now,” says Thomas Mor­ris. “There is high, high in­ter­est in this.”

It’s all cat­nip to a man of broad in­ter­ests and deep sen­si­tiv­i­ties. “I love this sort of thing,” Mark Mor­ris says. He has also pro­grammed ra­dio shows and film se­ries; he’ll give ad­vice on where you should eat and what you should read. (Like what, you ask? “‘ The Mar­riage of Cad­mus and Har­mony’ by Roberto Calasso,” he replies, with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “It’s the Greek myth in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­fully in­ter­leaved and nar­ra­tiveed. It’s an in­cred­i­bly thrilling book.”)

He may get to pro­gram a venue’s en­tire dance sea­son in a cou­ple years, though he won’t yet di­vulge de­tails.

Cu­rat­ing has be­come a fruit­ful side gig, though to Mor­ris it’s all a part of what he does as a chore­og­ra­pher.

“I think I have in­ter­est­ing, good taste, and I like it when I can show peo­ple those things. It’s like hav­ing a dance com­pany,” he says, “show­ing peo­ple some­thing they can en­joy.”

STEPHANIE BERGER

MEAN­ING IN THE MU­SIC: “Fes­ti­val Dance” is per­formed to Aus­trian com­poser Jo­hann Ne­po­muk Hum­mel’s Pi­ano Trio No. 5 in E. Mark Mor­ris says Hum­mel is un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated.

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