Mark Morris

Mark Morris (Amber Star Merkens photo / June 19, 2012)

Mark Morris Dance Group

June 21-22, 8 p.m., pre-show discussions at 7 p.m., $20-$50, Shubert Theater, 247 College St., New Haven,


On the heels of a successful debut in China, where choreographer Mark Morris received the honorific title of artistic advisor to the Guangzhou Opera House, the Mark Morris Dance Group returns to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas for two performances this week.

Morris frequently states that he is a choreographer because he loves music. About his process, he said last week over the phone, "It's a decision. I find music and will decide to choreograph." And he determined in 1996 to have live musical accompaniment for performances. Unlike many modern dance companies, his has been able to finance that component or find partnering organizations to make that happen.

Morris will be in the Shubert Theater pit leading the Yale Collegium Players and Yale Choral Artists for his dancers. For the first time, he will lead players in Haydn's Horn Concerto No. 2 in D, the score for his 1991 work, "A Lake," and Bach's Motet No. 3 in E Minor, BWV 227, best known as "Jesu, Meine Freude," choreographed in 1993.

Seven years ago, for his company's 25th anniversary, Morris first picked up the baton for Vivaldi's Gloria in D, the score for his earliest masterpiece. Choreographed in 1981, "it wasn't right and I fixed it," he says, in 1984. "Gloria" remains a popular signature work, and completes the New Haven program.

Knowing what he wants to hear, Morris is growing as a musical director and as a coach for instrumentalists and singers. (That dashes hopes of regional conductors who would dearly like to work with him.)

"Most people don't have accurate rhythm, most singers have terrible diction," Morris says. So he helps musicians "to clear away some habits or obstacles from doing what they can do very well."

"You have to doubt everything a teacher ever tells you. I'm another point of view.... I'm not trying to retrain people, I have a different set of eyes and ears, and my input can be valuable for a lot of people — singers in scene work and technical presentation. It's how to get people to sing better and more clearly."

Morris, who will turn 56 this summer, bowled over the New York cognoscenti half his lifetime ago, when the Mark Morris Dance Group was first presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in 1984. Viewers were thrilled by his keen musicality, replete with rubato in weighted dance rhythms, structural formality and clarity, and a refreshing direct expression of sensuality and heart. Many found a brilliant revival of modern dance traditions that had largely fallen by the wayside with the liberation — or divorce — of movement from music a la Merce Cunningham and John Cage.

"Gloria" was among the works. Brimming with spirit, embodied in both physical struggle and heel-clicking joy, it was both a bracing tonic and a warm comfort.

Morris's biographer, the dance and literary critic Joan Acocella, has described "Gloria" as being about fellowship and grace.

I told him that his company still looks like a non-hierarchical community of people who care about each other.

"That's great to hear," Morris said. "We work together hard and on purpose." His tone turned dark. "So much dance is just so fucking phony and it's so inanely self-indulgent."

Our chat diverged when I mentioned watching the TV program "So You Think You Can Dance?" for the first time.

"The auditions show. It's fascinating to me. I'm all for it, it's no different from a lot of downtown modern dance. It's the same indulgence and kookiness, only more interesting. The dances are shorter and the lighting is brighter. You know I'm not a dance critic. I'm not beholden to dance itself. I'm a choreographer."

As for titling dances, Morris opines, "It doesn't matter what you call a dance, you can call it a big steaming pile of shit. 'A Lake' isn't about a lake, it's just the name of a dance.... I like titles beginning with 'The' and 'A,' like Edward Albee. I like 'the adjective noun.' It's not very mysterious. I don't like to decide what everybody's going to think."

It was time for him to start rehearsal. In closing, he enthused that his company's appearance in New Haven "will be a great show."

To hear Mark Morris talk about dance and music, and introduce selections from his vast collection of recordings, visit

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