DANCE:

In ‘Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon,’ chore­og­ra­pher Mark Mor­ris takes a turn at the mi­cro­phone

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SARAH L. KAUF­MAN sarah.kauf­man@wash­post.com Mark Mor­ris Dance Group Feb. 24 and 25 at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity. Visit cfa.gmu.edu.

Chore­og­ra­pher Mark Mor­ris takes a lyri­cal turn in ‘Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon.’

In the 37 years since he founded his dance com­pany, Mark Mor­ris has been a dancer, a chore­og­ra­pher and even a con­duc­tor, on oc­ca­sion. Now he is tak­ing on a new role, for the Mark Mor­ris Dance Group’s up­com­ing per­for­mances at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity: bari­tone.

For both shows, on Feb. 24 and 25, Mor­ris will sing the med­ley of de­li­ciously risqué songs from the 1920s and ’30s that ac­com­pany “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon,” a sly romp he cre­ated nearly 20 years ago. The songs, in­clud­ing “Wild Thyme,” “Do Do Do” “And Her Mother Came, Too,” were made fa­mous by Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan, two of the era’s beloved Bri­tish en­ter­tain­ers. The lyrics are a wee bit dirty, if you lis­ten closely, but they’re also charm­ing, clever and witty.

So is the danc­ing. This is one of Mor­ris’s fun­ni­est works. That’s the part he’d rather talk about, in­stead of his singing.

“It’s not like a show­boat­ing thing,” he in­sists, speak­ing by phone from his com­pany’s dance cen­ter in Brook­lyn. “It’s not like, at long last I’m mak­ing my singing de­but. I don’t want a stand­ing ova­tion. I’m just singing with the band.”

Still, the singing chore­og­ra­pher is a pretty rare thing. Fred As­taire and Gene Kelly come to mind; like Mor­ris, both men had pleas­ant but not con­ven­tion­ally ideal voices. Mor­ris, 60, ac­knowl­edges that his range is rather nar­row, but that suits the “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon” ma­te­rial. Lawrence’s own range was small. Known as “the glo­ri­ous Ger­tie,” and con­sid­ered by many to be the first in­ter­na­tional su­per­star, she was a great per­former rather than a great singer. But she didn’t let that stop her.

Mor­ris has al­ways loved to sing. Grow­ing up in Seat­tle, he sang at home with his fam­ily. His par­ents were big-band fans, and that’s when he heard the vin­tage pop songs that would in­spire “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon.” He sang in the cho­rus all through school. Singing made Sun­days bear­able: “When I was forced to go to church, which I de­tested, I sang in the choir.”

Af­ter he joined a Balkan folk­dance group as a teenager, he sang Croa­t­ian and Ser­bian mu­sic. Later, his pas­sion for cho­ral mu­sic led him to cre­ate some of his most mas­ter­ful dance works, such as the ex­quis­ite evening-length med­i­ta­tion on states of be­ing, “L’Al­le­gro, il Penseroso ed il Moder­ato,” ac­com­pa­nied by the Han­del ora­to­rio of the same name, and “Dido and Ae­neas,” a dance-drama ac­com­pa­nied by the Henry Pur­cell opera. (Mor­ris will con­duct when his group per­forms “Dido” at Brook­lyn Academy of Mu­sic next month.) Vo­cals have in­spired sev­eral other Mor­ris works, and he has di­rected nu­mer­ous op­eras.

He re­cently be­gan a weekly singing pe­riod with his dancers, as part of their cross-train­ing. They sing to­gether af­ter lunch.

“It’s so good for peo­ple to sing,” Mor­ris says. “Peo­ple get along bet­ter when they sing to­gether. And it teaches you an­other thing about breath­ing. And it’s fun.”

But singing in pub­lic? Mor­ris had to screw up his courage for that. The past cou­ple of times “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon” was in the reper­tory, in 2011 and 2002, he was tempted to sing — but only briefly.

“I au­di­tioned my­self and I was too scared,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d do it well enough.” This time, he au­di­tioned for his long­time ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Nancy Umanoff, and got a qual­i­fied go-ahead. “She said, ‘Yeah, if you prac­tice.’ ” He has been prac­tic­ing. “It’s ner­vous-mak­ing,” Mor­ris ad­mits. “I’ve been re­hears­ing enough, and I have the [guts] enough to sing it. I have a pretty good voice. I’m not a night­mare.”

Mor­ris is famed for his com­mit­ment to live mu­sic for all per­for­mances — a won­der­ful thing, and so un­usual that it sets his com­pany apart among modern-dance groups. His troupe trav­els with its own mu­sic en­sem­ble. (At Ge­orge Ma­son, in the pit along with Mor­ris will be a pi­anist, vi­o­lin­ist and per­cus­sion­ist.) In ad­di­tion to “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon,” the Mark Mor­ris Dance Group will per­form the solo “Ser­e­nade,” set to the Ser­e­nade for Gui­tar and Per­cus­sion by the late Lou Har­ri­son, one of Mor­ris’s fa­vorite com­posers and a friend. Two new works com­plete the pro­gram: “A For­est,” with mu­sic by an­other Mor­ris fa­vorite, Haydn (his Piano Trio no. 44 in E), and “Pure Dance Items,” with In­dian-influenced mu­sic by the Amer­i­can com­poser Terry Ri­ley (from his “Salome Dances for Peace”).

By the way, this is only the sec­ond venue where Mor­ris will sing, and his dancers will per­form, in “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon.” The first was last month at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign. This will be the last, for now. The com­pany has no plans to stage the work in the near fu­ture.

Along with vo­cals, Mor­ris has al­ways had a fond­ness for world mu­sic — which he prefers sim­ply to call “mu­sic” — and his lat­est, grand­est project com­bines both. It’s an evening-length work ti­tled “Layla and Ma­j­nun,” based on a clas­sic Per­sian love story, which was turned into a 1908 opera by the Azer­bai­jani com­poser Uzeyir Ha­jibe­yov. For Mor­ris’s dance­drama, the mu­sic is per­formed in a cham­ber ar­range­ment by the Silk Road En­sem­ble. Renowned Azer­bai­jani vo­cal­ists Alim Qasi­mov and Far­gana Qasi­mova also per­form in this work, along with other Azer­bai­jani singers and mu­si­cians. It pre­miered last fall in Berke­ley, Calif., and will tour na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. (The Kennedy Cen­ter is among the com­mis­sion­ers.)

About a decade ago, cel­list YoYo Ma had asked Mor­ris about turn­ing it into a stage pro­duc­tion. Mor­ris was in­clined, but didn’t think it was the right time. “I didn’t want it to be air­port-gift­shop mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Aladdin’ on Broad­way.”

So Mor­ris put the idea aside un­til he could re­search it prop­erly. Along the way, an Is­lamic love story be­gan to feel pretty hot.

“This is prob­a­bly a good time to do it, be­cause every­one is so in­sanely f----- up about Is­lam,” he says. “But as I said the first day of re­hearsal, this is not in any way a po­lit­i­cal cor­rec­tive. It’s not a cure for what I per­ceive is ailing us.” It’s sim­ply, he says, “very, very beau­ti­ful, sad, ten­der and ro­man­tic.”

“I never felt this was dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory. I just waited till I knew more and un­der­stood more.”

— Mark Mor­ris, above

CHRISTO­PHER DUG­GAN

ABOVE: The Mark Mor­ris Dance Group per­forms “Danc­ing Hon­ey­moon” at Ja­cob’s Pil­low dance cen­ter in Mas­sachusetts in 2011. BE­LOW: The troupe per­forms “A For­est” in Brook­lyn in 2016.

ANI COL­LIER

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