It’s a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn, and the swell of Saturday brunch goers has taken over the already-crowded sidewalks and café terraces up and down the neighborhood of Fort Greene. On the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Flatbush, dancers linger outside the Mark Morris Dance Center, heads craned up toward the still-blue skies, a sunlit respite before tonight’s impending rainstorm. Inside a quiet office, Mark Morris is busying himself with final preparations for the evening’s program, an intimate showing of four choreographic works that span his career from 1993 to early last year. “You’re very lucky; you’re in for a real treat tonight,” he booms, referring to the fact that only 150 of us have been invited into his studio theater for the privilege of seeing his company’s work in jewel-box environs.
Over the past 38 years, Morris — lauded as one of the most influential choreographers alive — has made a career of doing things his way, bypassing formulaic ideas about presenting and funding so that his work may be seen across broader audiences. “Dance is for everyone,” he stressed, “and funding has to come from a broad range of sources in order to sustain that.” Curating programs along starkly opposing scales and methods has become his signature approach, so that in any given season he might be presenting to a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center one night, only to be at the local middle school first thing the next morning. “Outreach is a big component of our company,” he added, “and finding different methods of funding is the only way to keep all of it going.”
On Thursday, May 10, Santa Barbara audiences will witness one of Morris’s most creatively commissioned projects to date: a new piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album with no less than 17 cosponsors, including one of our city’s most culturally engaged institutions, the UCSB Arts & Lectures series. “How these works are funded is probably the least glamorous side of the arts,” Morris offered, “but it’s also important for the public to know that they just don’t happen spontaneously.”
To witness one of Morris’s dance works is to experience kinetic geometry explode across a stage, an approach so considered, one’s head snaps rhythmically from stage left to right as if he had gone ahead and choreographed the audience’s movement, too, while he was at it. So, too, is the music such an integral component of each gesture and extension that in 1996 he formed the MMDG Music Ensemble, a group of multifaceted musicians that joins the company on tour. “Music and movement are equally considered,” Morris stressed. In his new work Pepperland, the symbiosis takes on a heightened level of nuance as classic songs from the album, including “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty-Four,” are sound mixed by composer Ethan Iverson with undercurrents of distilled and isolated rhythms so that the music feels at once familiar and refreshingly reimagined. “I can’t work with music I don’t like, and Ethan did an excellent job of making it work for our company,” he added. If Pepperland is a culmination of Morris’s influences from his youth (“I listened to that album nonstop like everyone else did”) and the years he spent living and creating vibrant new work in Europe as director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, he’s letting the work speak for itself. “Only other people can say that. I don’t see the work, I just do it.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents the Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland Thursday, May 10, 8 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.