In general, Mark Morris tends toward the fiery and passionate expression of his opinions. But get him riffing on why he considers live music so essential to dance performance and be prepared for the choreographer and master of the sharply worded rant to take things up a notch.
"Why do I use live music? I would turn that question around and ask why would you use recorded music. Why am I the freak? Live music is music. The fact that recorded music has become so acceptable is unacceptable to me. If you have to use recorded music, then don't do the piece," he says, noting he will boycott even the most highly acclaimed dance performances if they are bereft of live music. "If I want to just listen to music, I have a great sound system at home."
A lifelong music lover, Morris has spent much of his prodigious career actualizing his unwavering devotion to the integration of dance with live orchestral and vocal performance. In 1996, he formed the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble so that his company could perform exclusively to live music. He has worked with a number of opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera for its revival last month of its 2007 "Orfeo ed Euridice," which he directed and choreographed, and its premiere in February of John Adams' 1987 "Nixon in China," which he choreographed. His company makes regular appearances at the Tanglewood Music Center and he has dabbled in conducting. Most recently, he agreed to serve as the music director for the prestigious Ojai Music Festival in 2013.
"I'm asked a lot to do music things," says the 54-year-old choreographer by phone from his Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Center. "And that is what I love."
Currently, Morris, who has spent the last year industriously presenting both new works and revivals in celebration of his company's 30th anniversary, is preparing for the first collaboration of Los Angeles Opera and the Music Center. His landmark 1988 "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," set to Handel's 1740 oratorio of the same name, premieres at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend and, for the first time, will feature the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Grant Gershon.
First performed in Brussels, Belgium, where Morris had a three-year stint as the director of dance for the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, the evening-length work also features 24 dancers, four opera singers, the poetry of John Milton and a set by Adrianne Lobel based on the watercolors of William Blake. It has appeared in multiple venues and countries and, although it has featured different casts of dancers over the years, the choreography has, for the most part, remained the same.
"I don't think I've ever really made changes. Maybe I've told the dancers to do something on the other leg," says Morris. (Subtext: If it's not broken, don't fix it.)
Morris leaves it to others to opine on why "L'Allegro," in the words of New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella, "is widely considered one of the great dance works of the 20th century." Consisting of 32 sections designed to embody allegro (joy), penseroso (melancholy) and moderato (the balance between the two temperaments), the work seems to have something for everyone. There's pedestrian movement, high-energy leaping and kicking, duets, trios and unison ensemble dancing evoking a variety of emotional states and pastoral imagery, slapstick humor and an underlying exuberance where the expression of joy ultimately steals the show.
"It really connects with different people on different levels," says Renae Williams Niles, director of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series.
Niles had wanted to present "L'Allegro" at the Music Center for years and saw a unique opportunity to join forces with L.A. Opera. She believes the dance belongs in the same rarefied category as Alvin Ailey's 51-year-old "Revelations," recently performed at the Music Center. "A masterpiece takes you to a place you want to keep going back to. 'Revelations' does that and so does 'L'Allegro.'''
Gershon, L.A. Opera's associate conductor and chorus master, observes that "the piece is legendary not just among dance aficionados but musicians. It's an ideal wedding of music and movement," he says. "The pairing of dance and music in this piece is so symbiotic and so visceral for both musicians and dancers."
To prepare for his role as conductor of the upcoming performances, Gershon had traveled to New York to consult with Morris and his company before working separately with the L.A. Opera musicians. All members of the production will have rehearsed together for a week before opening night. It's a process that "has been far more involved" than usual," says Niles about presenting dance at the Music Center. So far, Gershon says, he's "over the moon."