Quick. Name the five top dance companies in the United States today. Personally, it would be difficult to choose only five, but if pressed, I'd say the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, White Oak Dance Project, Paul Taylor Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, and Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG).
If your list didn't include MMDG, maybe it's because you haven't had many chances to see it -- the group last appeared at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in May 1998. After a hiatus too long for dance lovers, the group returns to the center for performances on Tuesday, January 29, and Wednesday, January 30.
Morris' group fits into the list of top groups for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his popular appeal. He helped found the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1990, and counts Merce Cunningham among his influences.
In 1980, at the age of 24, Morris got the chutzpah to form his own company. "I'd been choreographing for a while and wanted to put on a show of my stuff," he says. "Some of my friends volunteered. By 1984, we had enough repertoire and dancers to form a nonprofit."
Since then, the Seattle-born dancer and choreographer has received honor after honor. In 1988, the Belgian government invited Morris to direct its national opera house in Brussels.
Last year, MMDG opened the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York. The 30,000-square-foot, $6 million facility is minutes from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has often served as home base.
It's an appropriate location for Morris, who's always been very hands-on with his music. At a young age, he says, he learned to read music from his father. He also played the piano "badly," sang in choruses and was always in some sort of musical situation. "It's from interest, not formal training," he says. Morris only performs to live music now, all coordinated under music director Ethan Iverson. "But I'm the boss," he adds.
He will bring five pieces from his hundred-strong repertoire to the performances in Scottsdale, including 1993's Grand Duo, an Egyptian-costumed spectacle accompanied by Lou Harrison's contrapuntal music; Canonic 3/4 Studies, Morris' 1982 spoof on classical ballet; and The Office, featuring Morris and his most senior dancer, Guillermo Resto.
The company has definitely evolved since the days when it was first emerging from the Belgian experience. "[It's] a bunch of newish people and they do the work great," Morris says. "Every new dancer changes the tone of the company."