March 15, 2007

Wild Child Mark Morris Storms Schwartz

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In the performing arts world, modern dance choreographer Mark Morris has a reputation as an enfant terribile—a French term for a wild child—according to Senior Lecturer Byron Suber, dance. Suber said that Morris’ eccentric behavior not only established the choreographer as the bad boy of dance, but also attracted undue attention to his work.

Tonight’s Mark Morris Dance Group performance gives the Cornell community the opportunity to evaluate Morris’ choreography for themselves.

The performance will begin with “All Fours” and, after an intermission, conclude with “Violet Cavern,” according to MMDG’s webpage. The MMDG Music Ensemble, together with the jazz trio The Bad Plus, will accompany the dances.

Suber recalled Morris’ persona and actions: “I remember being in ballet class at Pineapple Studios in New York City in the ’80s, and Morris would come in late, get completely naked and then change into his dance clothes. Or, he would go into dance shows and boo people — he made a spectacle of himself.”

Senior Lecturer Jumay Chu, dance, put Morris in the context of dance history. She said that like other choreographers in the ’80s, Morris set out to reintegrate theatrical elements into choreography and that he now oversees every element of the production, as the “authoritative director of the event.”

Chu explained that Morris’ early training in Balkan folk dancing continues to influence his choreography, namely its “earthiness, flat-footedness and use of gravity.”

She elaborated by saying that Morris’ work is very physical, very kinesthetic and that it gives the audience a “sense of the flesh and weight of the body.”

“Morris doesn’t push boundaries as much as other choreographers — such as William Forsythe and Elizabeth Streb,” Suber said. “His work isn’t really doing anything innovative in a profound way — it’s just interesting, quirky and fun.”

The performance is co-sponsored by the Cornell Concert Series — a group of six professors, two students and a staff member that dedicates itself to bringing live music to Cornell.

Ethan Iverson, the pianist of The Bad Plus, was the music director of the MMDG Music Ensemble from 1998 to 2002.

“I always work with live music,” said Mark Morris, the founder of MMDG. “I rehearse with a pianist and I study music.”

According to Morris, after Iverson’s jazz trio — The Bad Plus — “took off into a great successful career,” Morris still wanted to work with them. To do so, he commissioned the jazz group to compose and arrange a score for “Violet Cavern.”

Morris said that he already had “a lot of Violet Cavern done,” so The Bad Plus “made up music that fit the rhythmic structure of the dance.” Morris went on to say that the rhythmic structure of “Violet Cavern” is “very complicated,” as is that of Béla Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 4,” performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble for “All Fours.”

“It was a lucky find that The Bad Plus is coming with Mark Morris,” said Tokiko Nobusawa, manager of the Cornell Concert Series. “Each player is a fantastic musician, but together they traverse the unconventional, like maybe starting out with a dopey pop tune, improvising on it and building up to something funky, then morphing into something sounding like Rachmaninoff.”

Iverson said that the first movement of the music The Bad Plus composed for “Violet Cavern” is “a space cathedral, in that it’s slow, murky and epic;” the second movement, according to Iverson, has a “strong rock beat,” and the rest of the six movements of the piece have elements of the first two.

Nobusawa saw Mark Morris Dance Group perform, and realized that they “work with the structure of the music in their choreography” — in comparison to other dance performance groups, who may only have “a very surface relationship to music,” or “only swing with the music.”

According to Chu, Morris believes that no aspect of the performance should overpower the others. This is one reason why he never performs to taped music: in that case, the live dance would eclipse the recorded music, said Chu.

Suber sees Morris’ relationship with music in a different light.

“Morris does have great respect for music and knows a lot about it, but if the dancers weren’t so great, I wouldn’t be impressed,” Suber said. “He tends to pick out the least common denominator in the music and work around it, without hearing or giving notice to anything else.”

In an e-mail, Suber clarified his opinion: “Morris is incredibly literal with music by either choreographing the most obvious gestures to the music or by replicating the lyrics. For instance, if the word ‘water’ is in a song, the dancers simulate water; if the word ‘trees’ is in a song, they act like tress, very similar to ‘kindergarten dances.’”