Mark Morris Dance Group to perform at the Phillips Center

The internationally renowned Mark Morris Dance Group will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Phillips Center. (Courtesy photo)

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.

Brooklyn’s renowned Mark Morris Dance Group returns to the Phillips Center on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Once again, the company brings a not-to-be-missed repertory program of stellar dance and music.

Mark Morris Dance Group has 20 modern dancers, five classical musicians and one brilliant, consistent choreographer. (The company, formed in 1980, performs Mark Morris’ work and Morris’ work alone.)

Morris has gone down in the dance history books as the co-creator — with Baryshnikov — of the White Oak Dance Project, as the choreographer of commissions that have been called the best new ballets since the Balanchine era, as the replacement for Maurice Béjart as dance director of Belgium’s Théâtre Royal, and of course, for the 30-plus years’ success of his own company.

Mark Morris Dance Group is based in Brooklyn, operating outside of Mark Morris Dance Center. The center opened in 2011 and houses the company, Morris’ school and outreach work, including the “Dance for PD” international program, in which the Mark Morris Dance Group works with Parkinson’s patients.

(The Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Dance for PD” has an active history in Gainesville, with Shands Arts in Medicine and the UF School of Theatre and Dance.)

Though his own Mark Morris Dance Group is not a ballet company, Morris has a longstanding relationship with San Francisco Ballet, and his works are in the repertoire of The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Dutch National Ballet, Boston Ballet and many others.

Morris is well known as a choreographer guided primarily by music. He directs operas and sometimes conducts orchestras. Morris insists that from class to rehearsal to national tour, he and his company work only to live music.

“I’d no sooner tour without musicians than without dancers,” he said in a phone interview. When he describes his dances, he describes the music in tandem.

So what makes a piece of music great for dancing? Or just great?

“Well that’s basically just it,” he says. “It has to be something I can listen to many, many, many times, sometimes hundreds of times. I do a lot of chamber music — since we always use live music, we travel with musicians. Although I do pieces with a lot of singers and with orchestra, we can’t just go on the road with those things. So I have a great pianist, I have a great string quartet. It’s a total package of very high-level performers.”

Even high-level dancers can spend years rehearsing and performing to recorded music. I ask Morris what kind of reactions he gets from dancers who join his company.

“Well, they have to pay attention in a new way,” he says. “It’s wonderful. I don’t perform myself much anymore, but it used to be the click of the tape recorder, and you’d have to imagine that you’re doing it all for the first time. And of course, that’s the job. But when it’s living people in the pit, you can’t pretend anything, cause you’re actually in the exact moment of performance with them.”

Friday’s performance moments span four works: “Silhouettes,” “Mosaic and United,” “Ten Suggestions” and “Festival Dance.”

Why these particular pieces for this particular program?

“We usually keep about 15 to 20 pieces active,” Morris explains. “We consider the size of the stage, the scale of the music that we can bring, what we’ve done someplace before, what we’re going to do next, who’s dancing in what. So it’s all a very complicated math — there’s a whole bunch of stuff. And we want it to be, of course, an interesting and varied show.”

“Silhouettes” is a 1999 piece for two — two males, two females, or a combination of each. One dancer wears the pajama pants, while another wears the matching pajama shirt. It’s quirky and fun.”

When I asked Morris to comment on the interaction between the characters, the figure and the “silhouette,” he said, “Oh, I don’t know. I have no idea what they’re thinking.

“It was first made for a couple of men who were ballet dancers,” he goes on, “but it’s not in classical ballet style. It’s sort of a variety show — it refers to different sorts of American music vernacular. It’s a good piece. Not too long, but very hard.”

“Ten Suggestions” is a solo, first performed by Morris himself in 1981.

“A lot of people have done the piece over the years,” he says. “We just brought it out lately — there’s two different people in my company who can do it. They don’t do it the way I do it. I wouldn’t want them to. Because of the nature of this piece, it contains a lot of spontaneous decision-making. It’s new every time.”

“Mosaic and United,” which refers to the titles of the two Crowell quartets that make up the music, is another classic. Morris created it for both his own group and White Oak Dance Project, with Baryshnikov and Yo-Yo Ma performing in the premiere. Costumes are by Isaac Mizrahi.

“Originally I choreographed it for both companies,” Morris confirms. “So we could do it in any combination of us and them, or alone. It’s just back in the repertory. It’s a very gorgeous, two-part dance. It’s just for five people, but it’s quite substantial.”

Friday’s performance concludes with one of Morris’ newest works, the 2011 acclaimed “Festival Dance.”

“It’s a very big dance, for six men-and-women couples,” he says. “The piece of music is by the composer Hummel, who is underappreciated now. He was very popular in his time in the early 19th century. And he was a wonderful virtuoso pianist. The piece is for piano, violin, and cello and it’s in three movements, and it’s like a festival.

“It has a social dance element to it. I mean that it’s not empty virtuosity to catch the eye and not engage the person at all. It’s couple dances, and there are line dances, and some circle dances. So that’s it — three movements, six couples and this virtuosic piano trio.”

The New Yorker calls “Festival Dance” “jolly and vigorous ... Morris is good at portraying joy.”

The New York Times says it “builds up to a completely winning finale.”

Sarah Maze can be reached at

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