The accolade “world-renowned” too often is casually applied when describing an artist. In the case of celebrated choreographer Mark Morris, it is totally apt and then some.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has danced in at least 10 of Morris’ premieres, has described him as “one of the great choreographers of our time.” Together they founded the White Oak Dance Project in 1990.
Since forming the 18-member Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, Morris has created 130 works for his equally celebrated modern dance company, which is based in New York City’s flourishing artists’ mecca, Brooklyn.
And as the director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the National Opera House of Belgium, between 1988 and 1991, he created 10 new works, including three evening-length dances.
These are but a few of Morris’ long list of accolades and “world-renowned” achievements. However, at George Mason University, where the Mark Morris Dance Group performs Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 at the Center for the Arts, Morris has another, more personal, claim to fame — he is an esteemed friend of more than a decade.
Friendships, in fact, are at the heart of the relationship between Morris and the university. Dan Joyce, an associate professor in GMU’s School of Dance, was a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group between 1988 and 1998. Susan Shields, a professor in the School of Dance, danced with Morris as part of his White Oak Dance Project with Baryshnikov. Both teach Morris’ works in their classes.
Two School of Dance alums, Rita Donahue (class of 2002) and Billy Smith (class of 2007) are members of the Mark Morris Dance Group. (A third Morris dancer, Spencer Ramirez, grew up in Springfield and attended Juilliard.)
Morris’ works frequently are performed at the School of Dance’s annual Gala Concert. This year’s gala performances, on March 22 and March 23, will feature a premiere by Billy Smith.
In addition, Morris’ dancers often hold residencies with the School of Dance when the company performs at Mason, and they oversee rehearsals of his works for the Gala Concert.
The Center for the Arts is one of the few places where his company performs every year, said Morris, speaking by phone recently from Berkeley, Calif., where he was busy staging “The Hard Nut,” his adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” inspired by the avant-garde American comic artist Charles Burns. “The Hard Nut” was the last piece Morris created during his time in Belgium.
He summed up his relationship with Mason simply, saying, “They like us; we like them.”
One consequence of this mutually beneficial friendship has made the Center for the Arts a destination for the D.C.-area premieres of Morris works. Continuing this tradition, on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9, the Mark Morris Dance Group will present the D.C.-area premieres of three works: “The Office,” set to the music of Antonin Dvorak; “Festival Dance,” set to Hummel’s Piano Trio No. 5 in E major; and “Socrates,” performed to music by Erik Satie.
In putting together a program, Morris said he is “careful not to repeat musical forces” but to create an “interesting balance.”
Called the “Mozart of modern dance,” Morris — in addition to the intrinsic wit and narrative quality of his choreography — is particularly known for his extreme musicality. All his works are performed to live music played by top musicians, and since 2006, he has conducted performances for the Mark Morris Dance Group.
“I won’t do it any other way,” Morris said, noting, “I listen to music all the time. … Music is the point of departure for everything I do.”
Except for his unwavering commitment to live music and perhaps that his dancers always perform exceptionally and barefooted, Morris dismissed the idea that he and his company have a signature style. Nor are the dancers in his company a particular type.
Morris, in fact, is defiantly opposed to the idea of typing, describing it as “infantile” and, in some instances, as “a kind of misogyny.”
What he looks for is simple, Morris said. “I look for dancers who dance beautifully, are adult, smart and talented … and know how to get along.”
What makes his company distinctive, he added with easy assurance, “is that it is extremely good. If someone says ‘what a great dance,’ it must be by Mark Morris. … Dancing is what counts.”
“The Office,” performed by seven dancers, is an older work that his company is coming back to after a while. It is an abstracted treatment of folk dance patterns. Morris, who has a strong folk background, made his first professional appearances as a dancer with the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble.
The New York Observer said of “Festival Dance,” performed by 12 dancers and built on images of social dances: “It’s charming, it’s exhilarating, it’s unexpected.”
Performed by 15 dancers with colors inspired by the David painting “Death of Socrates” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Socrates,” Morris told Wall Street Journal dance critic Robert Greskovic, is “about Plato’s relationship to Socrates. It’s not the story of Socrates. It’s about how Socrates affected the people that he was jailed for influencing, and it’s barely that; it’s also a beautiful dance.”
The recipient in 2006 of a WQXR Gramophone Special Recognition Award “for being an American ambassador for classical music at home and abroad,” Morris is credited, more than any other modern choreographer, with introducing classical music audiences to modern dance.
Although he works “with music all over the time line,” he did acknowledge a particular fondness for the baroque music of George Frederick Handel and that of modern American composer Lou Silver Harrison, who is noted for incorporating elements of the music of non-Western cultures into his work.
However, Morris was explicit that in dance and music he doesn’t “have influences,” but “friends I enjoy working with.”
He declared, “I’m 56; I’m not looking for teachers.”
Morris has established his distinguished international reputation not only in the world of modern dance, but also in the arenas of ballet and opera.
As a ballet choreographer, he has created eight works for the San Francisco Ballet. His work also is in the repertories of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, New Zealand Ballet, Houston Ballet, English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet.
In opera, he has directed and choreographed productions for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Gotham Chamber Opera, English National Opera, and The Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
The recipient of numerous honors and a MacArthur Foundation “fellow,” Morris, who counts 11 honorary doctorates to date, in 2010 received the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music, and most recently, he was awarded the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award.
Returning to George Mason University and the Center of the Arts to “do a big show in a big theater is always quite exciting,” Morris said.
“We love being there. It is our home away from home.”