Choreographer Mark Morris is legendary for insisting on live musical accompaniment. One rare exception: “A Wooden Tree,” set to ditties by the late Scottish humorist Ivor Cutler, coming soon to the Moore Theatre.
Mark Morris is a singular talent — and, with more than 150 dances to his credit, has become one of the most influential choreographers of our time. Inventive, versatile and witty, he makes works that are both smart and emotional, and can create a complex sense of place or mood with the simplest gestures and stage elements.
But Morris’ intense musicality — his ability to interpret the accompaniment through movement in a unique, organic and interesting way — may be his most distinctive contribution. Although most choreographers have some appreciation of music, there are few with Morris’ depth of knowledge and his ability to bring whatever music he is using so kinetically alive.
Morris’ insistence on live music, as opposed to recordings, is legendary. His Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) includes a group of musicians as well as dancers and it’s not unusual for Morris to have a score in front of him in the rehearsal studio.
Mark Morris Dance Group
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, the Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $31-$75 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
“If you’re going to use music, you should know something about it,” he explains. He says his dancers are “very profoundly” grounded in music and many of them can read it; to reinforce its importance, he holds a singing session for them once a week, hearkening back to his youth when he sang in a local choir.
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Morris learned to read musical notation from his father as a child, although he says his ability to read scores and understand their technical challenges has increased significantly since he started conducting them in 2006 for MMDG performances.
Since then, he’s conducted at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and served as music director for the 2013 Ojai Music Festival. He’s also moved into opera, directing and choreographing for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera (now defunct) and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
All four works in the upcoming program, three of them new to Seattle, demonstrate Morris’ interest in a wide range of musical styles, often ones with vocal elements. “A Wooden Tree,” which premiered at On the Boards in 2012 — with a surprise appearance by Mikhail Baryshnikov — uses witty, offbeat songs by the Scottish poet Ivor Cutler.
The now-deceased Cutler sings his loopy ditties (a rare case where Morris has had to use taped audio) about a family’s excitement over a growing tree, not having common sense and a man who sits at the top of the world tapping out songs in Morse code.
The quirky, folk-inspired dance perfectly captures Cutler’s wackiness and sweetness; the costumes — mismatched everyday dress — add to the effect as the full MMDG ensemble cavorts around the stage.
Morris likes unusual instrumentations and “The,” which premiered at Tanglewood Music Center this past June, features a rarely performed arrangement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 for four-handed piano (two live pianists).
Morris has a particular affinity for baroque dance rhythms and “The” matches the symmetry of Bach’s composition with orderly windings and unwindings while providing even more texture to the music with surprising drops to the floor and couples running around with hands clasped high.
In “Cargo,” created in 2005, Morris uses Darius Milhaud’s “La création du monde,” which will be performed by five MMDG musicians. The title refers to the “cargo cults” of the South Pacific, which held that manufactured goods were created for them by ancestral spirits. Morris’ muscular choreography makes the most of the jazz-inflected score as the dancers discover a huge pole and then explore its possible uses.
Rounding out the program is another recent work, “Whelm,” set to three piano pieces by Debussy. Here, Morris probes the darker side of the score. The entire production design — dimly lit stage and black costumes — creates an eerie, surreal environment.
Although the shadowy, mysterious “Whelm” is bleaker than most of Morris’ ballets, it demonstrates once more Morris’ extraordinary capacity to bring music and dance together in a way that expands our appreciation of both.