News Column

Morris looks beyond dance music for dancing [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

May 1, 2013


Choreographer Mark Morris has long been celebrated for both the inventiveness of his movements and for the depth of his musicality. The winner of a 1991 MacArthur Foundation genius award, Morris is a prolific creator who has made pieces for his own group, for major ballet companies and staged 20 operas.

Pittsburgh Dance Council will present the Mark Morris Dance Group on May 4 at the Byham Theater, Downtown. The program is "The Muir," "Petrichor" and "The Festival Dance," all created in the past few years.

Dance and music have been driving forces in the life of Morris, all the way back to childhood. He preferred singing to piano and liked, most of all, folk dancing, in which he could sing and dance at the same time.

As a choreographer, he begins by selecting a piece of music he thinks would be good for dancing.

"I work only with music, and I have a giant sort of catalog of music I'm interested in listening to. I listen to music all the time," he says.

The wide range of music he enjoys is reflected in the works that will be performed for Pittsburgh Dance Council. But selection is only the first step.

"I study the music. I listen to it, study the score and then don't listen and think about it. I come into the studio with a few ideas and work with the dancers and pianist. I never work from recordings. I work from bar to bar, and idea to idea, with the dancers who are learning it as I develop it."

The opening work, "The Muir" for six dancers, is set to Scottish folk song settings by Ludwig van Beethoven. They are among the composer's most-obscure pieces.

"I've known them for 30 years," Morris says. "They're not often performed, just great folk songs, in this case of the British isles, specifically Scotland, that people see as lesser Beethoven because they're arrangements, but of course, with the miracle touch of Beethoven's mind on this music twice removed from the source. It's all folk music: strophic songs and ballads and wonderful bits of narrative."

The title of "Petrichor," for eight female dancers, refers to the scent left after rain. Morris created it with the String Quartet No. 2 by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Since his pianist was overworked at the time Morris made "Petrichor," finding a piece without keyboard had an extra advantage.

The concluding work on the program is set to Piano Trio No. 5 by Johann Nopomuk Hummel who worked in the early 19th century, and as a boy had studied and lived with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his family.

"Far too few people know Hummel," Morris says. "Beethoven eclipsed all of Hummel's work, but he wrote some fabulous music, really."

None of the music Morris used for the pieces that will be performed at the Byham Theater were intended for dance. In fact, Morris believes a lot of music written for dance isn't very good music.

"I don't look for dance music, necessarily. Music is much more interesting than modern dance, much bigger in selection, consequently bigger in range and quality," he says.

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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