Photo courtesy Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers perform Mark Morris’ Pacific as part of Contemporary 4, March 18–27, 2011.

Mark Morris doesn’t understand what I’m asking—he never does. Interviewing the modern dance pioneer is akin to sparring with a feisty veteran of the epee, someone who’ll needle you, poke you until you ask the question the right way. (There’s always a right way.) If he wasn’t so frustratingly good at his day job—choreographing jubilant modern ballet with a maestro’s ear for classical music—he’d make a great trial lawyer.

Me: What do you like about working with Pacific Northwest Ballet?

Morris: That’s a leading question.

Me: Do you like working with PNB?

Morris: I like working with very good dancers, so yes.

This summer Morris shuttled between his home in New York City and his native Seattle, where he had been commissioned by PNB artistic director Peter Boal to compose a new work for the company’s All Premiere showcase November 2–11. This is Morris’s first main-season commission for the Seattle ballet; he’s been prolific with his own Mark Morris Dance Group, creating some 120 works over 32 years, but he’ll only choreograph for another company if he’s seen it perform one of his dances. PNB recently got the green light—despite requesting a commission from Morris years ago. “Now, with Peter Boal, it’s a different situation,” he said. “I like it. I haven’t actually choreographed on these people—I’ve rehearsed them and met them and seen them dance. But to actually work with them is a new thing. Everybody’s a surprise.”

The world premiere at McCaw Hall will have 12 dancers in motion to Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik no. 3, a 1925 cello concerto that will feature Morris’s childhood friend Page Smith, principal cellist of the PNB orchestra. Music selection is tantamount to any Morris piece; “I’m a musician,” he once said, “and my medium is dancing.” That’s long been the case, ever since the Mark Morris Dance Group got its start with On the Boards (then in Washington Hall) in 1980. “On the Boards was part of a touring circuit for dance companies, a network of small performance spaces that promoted new work,” Morris said. The organization has since relocated to Lower Queen Anne, but its mission hasn’t changed. Morris revisited his roots last month with Mark Morris Dance Group and a brand new work for On the Boards featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov. He might not admit it, but two world premieres in a month is a lot of love for Seattle, his “ancestral home.”

PNB: All Premiere
Nov 2–11, McCawHall, $28–$173
World premieres by Mark Morris and PNB dancers Kiyon Gaines, Andrew Bartee, and Margaret Mullin

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