By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent | May 23, 2008
In a sense, next week's performances by the Mark Morris Dance Group represent an arc of Morris's career coming full circle. Morris's company will be performing his choreography of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," which he first unveiled nearly 20 years ago in Brussels. Morris himself danced the roles of Dido and the Sorceress, and his musical partners at the premiere were the Chorus and Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, with its founder, Craig Smith, conducting.
Next week's performances will reunite the dance group with the Emmanuel forces, though Smith, of course, won't be on the podium, having passed away in November. Taking his place will be none other than Morris himself. It is a rare - and possibly unprecedented - instance of a great choreographer moving into the role of conductor.
Morris's conducting debut came in 2006, during the company's 25th-anniversary performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "I brought back an old dance of mine to the Vivaldi 'Gloria,' " he says by phone from a hotel in Berkeley, Calif. Though a favorite with both audiences and the dancers, "It's not the dance I want to watch all the time." So Nancy Umanoff, the group's executive director, suggested that since Morris knew so much about the music, he should try his hand at conducting it.
"And so I did, in order to get another perspective on the music," he says. "I had some people coach me and did pretty well. It was very fun and exciting and nervous-making." He was encouraged to continue - by Smith, among others. "He said, 'You know the music you work with better than everyone else, you should do more of that.' And 'Dido' seemed to be the right next step."
In a way, going from choreographer to conductor wasn't such a huge leap, Morris says, given the intensive care he puts into the musical side of his productions. "Basically, I end up training conductors for my needs in a particular piece of music in the form of my choreography," he explains. "And with chamber music, which I use a lot, where we don't have a conductor, I coach the musicians in great detail. I'm sort of a physical person anyway, so I end up doing something that's very close to conducting already."
Morris first conducted "Dido" last spring in the Krannert Center for the Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which the company calls its "Midwest home." The most recent performances were in Irvine, Calif., and marked the first time he conducted members of an established group - the Pacific Symphony - rather than a pickup band he'd assembled. "That was scarier, of course," he says. "They have their own culture, routine, aesthetic, and their own way of doing things. So I [had to do] a little bit of convincing, but it went really well."
By now Morris seems to be poised and self-confident on the podium. "If the question is, 'Is that C-sharp or C-natural,' I can answer that," he says. "If it's a bowing question, I have to go with 'Play both versions and I'll pick the one I like.'
"If I don't know, I don't pretend to know - that's what makes me unlike a conductor," he says. This is followed by much laughter and assurances that the preceding comment is just a joke.
More sobering is the absence of Smith, a close collaborator who also worked with Morris on one of his most admired productions, "L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato." The Boston performances of "Dido" are dedicated to his memory. Perhaps the dedication says all that needs to be said, as Morris sounds somewhat dry-eyed about how Smith's memory will loom over the proceedings.
"When you get to [Dido's] lament it's kind of a tearjerker anyway," he says. "I'm not maudlin about it. I'm also not particularly nostalgic. But he was a wonderful friend and colleague for many years."
Wednesday through June 1 at the Cutler Majestic Theater. 617-482-6661, celebrityseries.org.