I first met celebrated choreographer Mark Morris in 2002, on a tour of his state-of-the-art Brooklyn, N.Y. Dance Center with a dozen fellow dance critics. As we were being led into the main studio where Morris was rehearsing his Mark Morris Dance Group, he stopped us and sternly directed us to take our shoes off and quietly seat ourselves along one wall of the studio.
It was my introduction into the temperamental genius' controlling nature, just one aspect of a complicated personality. In public, Morris can be funny and charming as well as irritable and opinionated.
Morris, 57, generally bars outsiders from his creative process and has been known to withdraw permission to perform his works from companies he feels no longer do them justice. He's managed to wield his intense personality to become one of the most influential and important choreographers in dance history. His more than 130 works — for his company, the world's leading ballet companies and for the opera — are known for their accessibility, cleverness and musicality.
Morris, who while growing up studied both music and dance, is unique among choreographers in that he prefers to choreograph from a musical score and insists upon the use of live music in his works. It's a practice his company — which includes both dancers and musicians — has adhered to in the studio and on tour since 1996.
"Music is my interest and the reason that I choreograph," says Morris, speaking by phone from his New York apartment. "My musicians are as much a part of my company as the dancers are. It's a unity."
Morris and company return to the Byham Theater on May 4 to close out the Pittsburgh Dance Council's season with three of his works, including 2010's "The Muir," set to Beethoven arrangements of a collection of Irish and Scottish folk songs. Says Morris: "There is a narrative text, so the words you are hearing reflect what the dancers are doing." Also on the program are "Petrichor" (2010), a work for eight women set to music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and the aptly titled "Festival Dance" (2011), a Bohemian folk dance with music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel.
"It's a good show," says Morris. "And live music is always worth it."