MARK MORRIS: Attention! I'm Mark Morris, and I'm a choreographer and a dancer, and this is my dance company. We all work together to put on shows for people like you.
JEFFREY BROWN, NewsHour Senior Producer: Mark Morris, explaining dance to a group of fifth graders.
MARK MORRIS: It's about the things that words can't really express very well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Later that night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts outside Washington, D.C., Morris offered his more customary statement on what dance is all about-- through dance itself, at a performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Morris grew up in Seattle studying folk and other forms of dance. He then worked with several modern dance companies in New York and started his own group in 1980, at just 24.
MUSIC: Duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck down...
JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes bizarre... Often baroque... Always brash, Morris quickly gained audiences and attention for his artistry, innovation, and flamboyant personality. In the early '90s, Morris was awarded a Macarthur genius grant and co-founded the White Oak Dance Project with ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov.
MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: He gave me wonderful pieces to dance, and he inspired me to go on with my... with my career.
JEFFREY BROWN: He also collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the dance, "Falling Down Stairs," set to Bach's Third Cello Suite.
YO-YO MA: Mark Morris is it. Now, this is coming from a guy who does... knows very little about dance, choreography, but he just gets to me, every time.
MARK MORRIS: Move your neck here. Now, don't pull your arms behind you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as he celebrates his company's 20th anniversary season, Morris is widely seen as one of the world's leading dance artists. He's one of just a handful able to bring in audiences who, like Yo-yo Ma, know little about modern dance.
MARK MORRIS: Very often people don't think they know how to watch it, or they're... they're I think bullied into thinking that it's, like, over their heads.
JEFFREY BROWN: I read a quote by the dance critic of the New Yorker, and she said, "To this day, one of the most frightening things you can say to some people is, 'Let's go to a modern dance concert.'"
MARK MORRIS: That's good. Yeah, I agree with that. I avoid a lot of them.
JEFFREY BROWN: So how does Morris connect with audiences? It all begins, he says, with music.
MARK MORRIS: I always start with a piece of music. I'm not doing, like, a musicological analysis and writing a paper or anything, but I'm figuring out in my mind what makes that particular piece work. So my intention is to say through dancing exactly what I think is being said through music.
JEFFREY BROWN: The dance, "Grand Duo," for example, uses a piece for violin and piano by contemporary composer Lou Harrison. Morris was taken by its final movement, called, strangely enough, "polka."
MARK MORRIS: Because I heard that "polka," I said I must choreograph this right now. And to me, it sounds very, very ancient. And so I wanted to make up a dance that was evocative and a little mysterious and seemed like maybe people had been doing it for hundreds or thousands of years. That was my assignment.
JEFFREY BROWN: Who gave you that assignment?
MARK MORRIS: Me. I gave me that assignment, based on what I gleaned from listening to the music and studying it.
JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to his use of music, Morris is known for the rigorous structure of his dances. George Mason University professor and dance critic Suzanne Carbonneau says he brings a classical approach, more typical of ballet, to modern dance.
SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: Well, Morris is a classicist in the sense that he is interested in formal patterns and structures-- the architecture of space, the architecture of the human body, the way that dance relates to music, that this kind of formality of the work is classical.
JEFFREY BROWN: The dance, "Deck of Cards," shows how Morris uses a basic pattern or structure and adds variations to build his dances. On its face, it seems simple, and funny, enough.
NARRATOR (in dance performance): The deuce tells me that the Bible is divided into two parts, the old and the new testaments...
JEFFREY BROWN: With a country western score, three solo performers dance three separate movements: A woman playing the part of a solider, Mark Morris in a wig and red dress as a lovelorn gal...
MUSIC: "And each night she leaves with someone new..."
JEFFREY BROWN: ...And a remote- controlled toy truck.
MUSIC: "I was shaking like a sinner -- I'm a gear-jammin' buddy, I live on short-order dinners..."
MARK MORRIS: Whether you see it or not, it's the exact same pattern of action. And so that has a certain sort of coherence that I think helps it. If you're going to take something home with you, you don't have to necessarily see what I did to build a piece so that it's satisfying or inevitable seeming. But that's why it is.
JEFFREY BROWN: One thing Morris does want you to see is that dance is an intensely visual form of theater. In a new dance, "Sang Froid," to the music of Frederic Chopin, Morris carefully places his dancers on the stage, like a series of framed paintings. In fact, at one point, the dancers literally freeze, emphasizing the visual element of the dance.
MARK MORRIS: My favorite part in that dance is where nobody moves for way too long. And then when they start dancing again, it makes it fuller. Dancing is absolutely a visual art. It's not just how you feel or what you look like moving, it's also where you are in depth.
MARK MORRIS: Duh-um pa-padda da-dee...
JEFFREY BROWN: To make all this happen, Morris works with the 18 dancers in his group. June Omura and David Leventhal say Morris makes demands both physical and mental.
DAVID LEVENTHAL: I find all of Mark's works I've done extremely difficult. There's both a muscular and a musical and an intellectual challenge that is surprising.
JUNE OMURA: A little bit of Mark's aesthetic is about us looking human. He doesn't want us to look like, "Oh, it's so easy to kick my leg up and you can't do it, but I can because I'm special." So a lot of time, what you see is... does concern struggle in a certain way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Both Omura and Leventhal dance in "My Party"-- to the audience at least, a joyful romp.
JUNE OMURA: We're almost sort of reimagining our adolescence when we're having a wonderful time, so you have to make it look light and joyful, even though you're dying.
MARK MORRIS: Dancing is very hard. Yes, it's very hard. My work is hard in a particular way. It doesn't incorporate a lot of the sort of fireworks or spectacular superhuman feats that some dancing does. There's much more of difficult rhythms, poly rhythms, and coordination. And you have to go the wrong direct... What seems organically the wrong direction. I'm very demanding on the dancers and on the musicians and on me in order that the rigor of that work pays off in making a bigger, more thorough result for an audience.
MARK MORRIS: This is just some genius Romanian music that I love. It's kind of new to me. So I'm just listening.
JEFFREY BROWN: Minutes before the concert, a Coke and cigarette in his dressing room may seem unlikely preparation for a rigorous evening.
MARK MORRIS: This is the scene where I'm supposed to, like, turn into a sad clown or something, right?
JEFFREY BROWN: But onstage a short time later, accompanied by nothing but a toy piano, the 44- year-old Morris still makes it look easy, dancing a new piece called "Peccadillos."
MARK MORRIS: When you're 24, you're different from when you're 44. And you also, like, will do anything in order to show that you feel more deeply than anybody else who's ever lived. And that's true, I think, of most people who are young artists. You think it's the last piece that you're ever going to do, so you put everything you can think of in.
In my later work, I want to pare down. Instead of doing everything, I try to see if I can do as little as possible and get a really streamlined, efficient result. I don't mean that to sound cold, I just want it to be clear.
JEFFREY BROWN: As part of their anniversary celebration, Mark Morris and his group will soon move into brand-new studio space in New York. It will be their first permanent home.