Smile Politely

Dance, music, and history: the Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble

This Friday, campus will be gripped by the green-dyed bacchanal known as Unofficial. For many of us who are older and more staid — or just not fond of dodging green puke — campus often becomes a no-go zone for the duration. But if you’re willing to be a little brave, head over to the Krannert Center, get a glass of white wine, and celebrate a different facet of the bacchanal: dance.

The Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble is performing for one night only, (correction — both March 4-5), at 7:30 pm. Morris is a highly respected choreographer who choreographs all of the pieces danced by the group and has choreographed many ballets, operas, and other dances as well. The dance group has been in existence since 1980 and has been touring with its own live musicians (the Ensemble) since 1996. Music is integral to Morris’ approach to choreography, which lends many of his dances a particularly emotional feel.

To learn more about the concert and about the Mark Morris Dance Group as a whole, we got in touch with dancer Michelle Yard. (Pictured below, standing left)

Smile Politely: Mark Morris’ choreography is often described in terms of its musicality, and the performances you’re touring right now are paired with live, virtuosic classical music performances. Can you talk about what it’s like as a dancer to have such an emphasis on music in your performances?

Michelle Yard: I have danced for Mark for nearly 20 years and every work he creates begins with a piece of music, it is his inspiration and from that a dance is born. Every note in the score is accounted for and choreographed. As a dancer it’s sometimes challenging to learn, what I call the DNA of each step. However, ultimately it makes the process very interesting and rewarding to learn and then perform.

Over the years, I have learned that even a piece of music that sounds simple and straightforward is never that, because of Mark’s attention to detail and superb ear. His choreography brings the notes on the page to life. The music he begins with and the dance he creates becomes even more varied and complex. And then I can’t imagine one without the other.

SP: The Mark Morris Dance Group has been touring for 20 years, and of course Morris has been a well-respected choreographer for much longer than that. What’s it like working in an environment with so much history?

Yard: As a new dancer in Mark’s group, I came in with the knowledge that this group is well established and Mark is a prolific choreographer with a great body of work. With that said, I had to put all the history in the back of my mind. I work with Mark everyday and he is creating new work all the time. The task at hand as one of his dancers is to be present. Our daily rehearsals consists of Mark and us working in the studio to produce something that he believes is worth watching. The days can be long and grueling, re-staging works or learning new choreography but there’s also a lot of laughter, talking about current events or discussing Jeopardy (Mark’s favorite TV show).

I guess what I’m trying to say is as dancers we are certainly aware that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, but at the same time we are living and dancing in this moment and all we can do is focus on that and executing Mark’s vision to the best of our abilities.

SP: Though musicality is a common theme when talking about Mark Morris choreography, is there anything else that strikes you about his work?

Yard: I’m in awe about how much Mark works, he is always creating a new dance and it has its own life. It’s not just about the music and the choreography but the big picture and that includes dancers, musicians, costumes, sets and many other details: too many to name. He knows what he wants the final product to be long before anyone else has a clue. The end result is very layered productions involving many collaborators and he continues to do it time and time again.

SP: Do you have a favorite piece among these performances? Is there one you would particularly recommend to someone new to dance?

Yard: It’s hard to pick just one but I love dancing Socrates created in 2010 for voice and piano composed by Erik Satie. I think it’s very different from Mark’s other dances. I find dancing it meditative and it transports me to a peaceful place. The movement continuously travels across the stage and reminds me of a river, never seeing the beginning or the end.
I would recommend that someone new to dance see, though not on our Urbana program this time, Grand Duo choreographed in 1993 for piano and violin, composed by the late Lou Harrison one of Mark’s favorite composers and a dear friend. Grand Duo is a perfect statement, it’s not too long it’s just right. But any of Mark’s dances is worth catching!


The Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble performs at 7:30 p.m. on March 4th and 5th. Tickets are $41 general admission, $36 for senior citizens, $58 for non-U-of-I students, and $10 for U of I students and youth (high school and younger). Flex and series pricing are also available. Tickets are available online or by calling the ticket office at 217-333-6280.

About Rochelle Smith:

Rochelle covers dance, theater, and other odds and ends for the Arts section. See her retweet too much and occasionally talk about recipes on Twitter.

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