When Sarasota Ballet presents the New York-based Mark Morris Dance Group this weekend, it will be the fulfillment of a long-held wish of company director Iain Webb.
Webb has been intrigued by Morris – the brilliant, acclaimed, quixotic choreographer and founder of one of the most successful contemporary dance troupes of all time – ever since they first crossed paths. It was 1999, shortly after Webb retired as a dancer from the Royal Ballet, when he was director of rehearsals for choreographer Matthew Bourne in London while also working as ballet master for Tetsuya Kumakawa. , director of K-Ballet in Japan.
“I’ve always been fascinated by him and his work,” Webb said of Morris. “He was there for a performance at Sadler’s Wells and I introduced him to everyone I could think of because I was so desperate to bring him to Tet. But I could never get out of it. I so wanted to be there to see his creative process, to see him work.
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This desire only grew stronger as Webb saw more of Morris’ work and caught a glimpse of the choreographer over the years; he even wrote down some barre exercises that he once watched Morris teach and sometimes add to his company classes today.
“I love his personality, all that quirkiness,” he says. “And when you look at the stuff that he choreographed, with this incredible musicality…you know you’re dealing with a genius and there’s not a whole lot of it around. That personality, the energy, everything about him . He is fantastic.
Then, in 2016, Sarasota Ballet debuted at the Joyce Theater in New York, performing a program of works by British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who mentored Webb at the Royal and whose work has become a mainstay of the Sarasota. Ballet repertoire. When Webb noticed Morris in the crowd waiting for the show to start, he saw an opportunity.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mark Morris is here!'” Webb recalled. “So I went up to him and said, ‘Hello, I’m Iain Webb. And he said, ‘Yes, you are.’ I only learned as he walked away that he was a big fan of Sir Fred.
The pair spoke to each other again when Sarasota Ballet returned to the Joyce two years later, but it wasn’t until Webb later met MMDG general manager Geoff Chang at a conference that a agreement has been reached. After gushing about his admiration for Morris, Chang replied, “Oh yeah, he likes your company too,” prompting Webb to ask if the ballet could perform any of Morris’ works.
This led not only to an arrangement for Sarasota Ballet to add Morris’ “The Letter V” to its repertoire in April, but to an agreement for MMDG to perform in Sarasota this week. He will present a program that includes three pieces from the choreographer’s stable of over 200 works spanning over 40 years.
In a “rare exception” to Morris’ rule of using only live music (MMDG has and travels with its own ensemble), “Gloria” – which is set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and requires a full orchestra and a chorus – will be performed on a recorded score. Created for 10 dancers in 1981, shortly after Morris founded his company, it’s one of the oldest dances in the repertoire, says Sam Black, the company’s current director and former MMDG dancer for 13 years.
“Mark refers to it as his ‘old’ style,” says Black, “and it’s a great example of his early work. Mark is a devout atheist, but he has always loved religious music. So I see it as both secular and spiritual.
Like the majority of Morris’ work, “Jenn and Spencer”, a 2013 duet, has no specific narrative, but provides an emotionally charged environment drawing inspiration from the dramatic piano and violin music of Henry Cowell. The choreographer is renowned for his musicality and rhythmic prowess, which originally drew Black, who started out as a tap dancer, into his work.
Morris chose 10 (from hundreds) of composer Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” for his 2014 hit piece, “Words,” which differs with each performance. Choreographed at a time when the company was splitting into two groups – one to tour nationally and the other to tour overseas as cultural ambassadors – Morris needed a dance “that could be made for any number of people, on a dirt floor in Cambodia or an opera house in Italy,” Black explained. The choreographer developed 10 “kits” that could be performed in any order, by any number of dancers and in different spaces.
“The actual text is the same every night, but the number on stage, the spacing, always changes,” Black says. “You can do eight bars and then leave, or sit on the floor and watch. You decide what you are going to do and at the last second change your mind. Or try something else the next night. It’s really fun.”
This sense of warmth and playfulness is, according to Black, part of MMDG’s universal appeal, even to those unfamiliar with contemporary dance.
“I think there’s a friendliness, generosity and authenticity to his work that is very inviting and engaging for audiences,” says Black, who is responsible for directing Morris’ choreography to the 16 dancers. the company. “Looking at it, there’s this beautiful sense of community, like anybody can get on stage and do what they’re doing – although of course, that’s definitely not the case.
“People like to say that Mark Morris’ dancers don’t look like dancers, but rather like regular people in height, height, weight and shape. People can see themselves portrayed in some way and feel really welcome in what’s going on.
As for Webb, he can’t wait to reconnect with “this icon of the dance world”, to observe his process and find out if they have more in common.
“Let’s face it,” Webb joked, “he must be a really decent guy to be such a huge Sir Fred fan.”
Sarasota Ballet Presents Dance Group Mark Morris
March 4-7. FSU Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets to sarasotaballet.org or 941-359-0099.