Mark Morris is the most musical of choreographers. From Beethoven's Choral Fantasy to Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts to a harpsichord concerto by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, he covers the musical waterfront in his modern dance and ballet. One thing he has nearly always insisted upon is that his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, perform to live music.
Except in his latest work, A Wooden Tree, which premiered last week in Seattle and is staged again during the Ringling International Arts Festival this week in Sarasota. It is danced to recordings of songs and poems by Scottish humorist Ivor Cutler.
"It just makes me a hypocrite," Morris said last week from his New York apartment. "I always try to use live music, but I've used recordings on a few occasions. We do a piece to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Going Away Party. So I have choreographed music that couldn't be done live, which is the case with this. Somebody else imitating Cutler wouldn't be very interesting."
Cutler, who died in 2006, was an eccentric in the British tradition. The Beatles cast him as the bus driver in Magical Mystery Tour. In the 14 selections that Morris uses in the score, Cutler plays harmonium and sings and does recitations.
One of the eight dancers in A Wooden Tree is Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose New York arts center collaborates on the festival with the Ringling Museum of Art. "Misha has been touring a play called In Paris, but he hasn't done a lot of dancing lately," Morris said. "I see him in New York quite a bit, and he just said, 'I'm still around and I'd love to be in another dance,' so I put him in this one. It seemed like the perfect chamber-sized number for him."
Morris can be impatient with interviewers. Asked what A Wooden Tree was about, or what the dancers represented, he dismissed the question.
"What do they represent? That's not a question," he said, not unpleasantly. "What do they represent? Well, they don't represent anything. They're them, they're dancers. The songs are little beautiful stories. I'm not going to describe the dance to you. I can't do that. Otherwise, it wouldn't have to be a dance."
There will be live music for the other three dances on the Morris program, which headlines the festival with four performances. They include Grand Duo (set to music for violin and piano by Lou Harrison); Silhouettes, a duet to piano music by Richard Cumming; and Canonic 3/4 Studies to short piano pieces in 3/4 time.
In another dance highlight, Shantala Shivalingappa, who specializes in Kuchipudi, a South Indian dance form, gives three solo performances. With the festival scaled back — it has been shortened by a day and has fewer presentations than in the past— other offerings include Ensemble Basiani, a choir from the Republic of Georgia; avant-garde Pig Iron Theatre Company; pianists Adam Tendler and Phyllis Chen; and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans. There is also a series of arts-related documentary films.
The festival begins Wednesday with the opening night performance by Morris' company and runs through Saturday at the Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, and the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 360-7399; ringlingartsfestival.org.
New CFO for venue
Ruth Eckerd Hall has a new chief financial officer. Lori A. James started work Monday at the Clearwater performing arts hall. She was CFO for six years at the South County Family YMCA in Venice.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.