Dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov has called Morris “one of the great choreographers of our time.”
Critics have not always been sure what to make of Morris—or whether to take him seriously. Morris has collaborated with classical star Yo-Yo Ma, as well as Baryshnikov, and Morris’ work is often grounded in classical forms. But over the past two decades, Morris has also danced in underpants with a bag over his head, and a recent work features a solo performance by a remote control truck. Morris says his choreography develops from the score, and his works are set to everything from Bach and Handel to country-western’s Louvin Brothers and rock’s Violent Femmes.
The outrageousness that puts off some is matched by a seriousness that critics say cover the human experience and emotional truth. But his style has irked some, and was not always appreciated. His dancers, derided by some critics as “fat,” have challenged the dance world’s notions of the body. Still, Morris’ reputation as the “bad boy” of modern dance has faded in recent years, amid accolades for Morris’ “force of imagination” and ability to mix emotions.
Born in 1956, Morris first studied dance in his hometown of Seattle, Washington. He developed an interest in a range of music and dance styles, including folk, classical ballet, and modern, which continue to influence his work. Morris moved from Seattle to New York in 1976, and his early career included performing with several groups, including the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Hannah Kahn Dance Company, Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, and the Eliot Feld Ballet.
At the age of 24, Morris founded the Mark Morris Dance Group with friends and colleagues. The ensemble first performed in 1980 at New York City’s Merce Cunningham Studio. Today, the Mark Morris Dance Group boasts a busy international touring schedule and is considered one of the world’s leading dance companies. The Dance Group performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the first of 15 seasons in 1984, had its Kennedy Center debut in 1985 and premiered in Europe and on PBS in 1986. In 1988, Morris was named director of dance at Brussels’ Theatre Royal de la Monnaie as the Dance Group was invited for a three-year stint as the national dance company of Belgium.
As artist in residence at Belgium’s national opera house, Morris created 12 pieces. Among them was what many consider to be his masterpiece, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. He also produced an irreverent take on The Nutcracker Suite, set in 1960s suburbia and titled The Hard Nut. And Morris founded the White Oak Dance Project with Baryshnikov in 1990. The Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the U.S. from Belgium in 1991. But the company maintains an international presence, appearing at major festivals such as the Edinburgh International Festival.
Morris has created over 100 works for the Dance Group and other companies. He has choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. In 1994 Morris collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on a television project titled Falling Down Stairs. The dance is set to Bach’s Third Suite for unaccompanied cello, and the program won an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Classical Dance-Music Program.”
While touring, the Mark Morris Dance Group makes frequent stops in Boston, Fairfax, Va., London and Berkeley, Calif. Part of this, the company’s 20th year, is the completion of the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, NY, the company’s first permanent home. The center will house studios and offices and offer facilities and classes to the community.