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Everything is alive: Mark Morris on MMDG’s Joyce debut

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Grand Duo'. Photo by Jim Coleman.
Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Grand Duo'. Photo by Jim Coleman.

The Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) makes its Joyce Theater debut in August of 2023. The MMDG, formed in 1980, has performed all over NYC and the world but never the Joyce Theater, a space created specifically for dance. For fans of the company, it is a rare opportunity to witness works on two different programs in a more intimate space. Dance Informa had the chance to speak with Morris and learn about what’s in store for these performances, what other projects he’s digging into, and how deeply important music is to dance.

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'A Wooden Tree'. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘A Wooden Tree’. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

For such an esteemed company who usually performs at Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, a Joyce engagement means choosing works that don’t require the trappings of larger theaters – smaller or no sets, less grand staging of movement due to the size of the stage and everything else that smaller theaters lack. However, what might be lost in grandeur is gained in intimacy. Each seat in the Joyce provides a close view and a chance to see nuances in the works that often gets lost in larger spaces.

According to Morris, there are many pieces in his body of work that fit perfectly in a space like the Joyce – they just don’t perform them that often.

“The Joyce Theater is small and very specific,” Morris says. “We’re doing shows that are specifically presentable, which means they’re not that big. There are no sets because there is no fly space.”

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'All Fours'. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘All Fours’. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Between the two programs being presented, Morris shares that the shows will represent a large swath of the company’s repertory. “There are many pieces in the repertory that are not huge, and we don’t do them that often. It’s more short stories as opposed to full novels.”

For the MMDG, however, the library of work is prolific and will continue after Morris stops choreographing, with his project entitled Dances for the Future. He is choreographing works to be presented annually. He teaches the dances to the company and notates the movement in various ways. The plan is to release the pieces gradually so there will be world premieres for some time to come.

Mark Morris. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
Mark Morris. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

One thing that’s a long established tenant of the MMDG is Morris’ dedication to using live music. At this point in his career, he has both sung and conducted at times but always prioritizes using live musicians. In fact, his dancers have vocal and music theory class once a week to broaden their understanding and connection to music.

Morris shares, “We do it to know more about music and to gain confidence and to breathe better. So we are really deep into music, and the fact that I sing occasionally is kind of a side gig.”

While The Joyce Theatre does not have an orchestra pit, six of the eight pieces on the program will feature live musicians. Morris states that the two using recorded music were done so intentionally, but the bulk of his work uses live music.

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Numerator Tanglewood'. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘Numerator Tanglewood’. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

“Everything else is live,” he says. “Always live. It’s unusual that I use any recored music, but one of these pieces is one of my earliest, from 1980, and it can’t be done with live music. It used to be that all dance was done to live music and those days are gone. There are many ways to use music, but I only want live musicians playing music.”

For audiences in attendance, these shows will certainly be an opportunity to immerse oneself in a complete artistic experience. With the intimate views and (mostly) live music, the beautiful union of dance and music will be on full display. As Morris says, “I want an audience alive. I want the dancer and performers alive. I want everyone to be alive and alert. I think that’s important.” 

Mark Morris Dance Group will make its debut at The Joyce Theater from August 1-12. For tickets and more information, visit markmorrisdancegroup.org/mark-morris-dance-group-at-the-joyce-theater.

By Emily Sarkissian of Dance Informa.

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