"Of course, I'll be there!"  American modern-dance titan Mark Morris bellowed into the phone when I asked whether he would be joining his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, on its return to Philadelphia next week for the first time in 14 years. "I don't decide where I'm going to go, ever," Morris, of Brooklyn,  added, emphasizing that he had never intended to stay away so long.  "It's about who invites us and who can pay."

Answers like these are typical of Morris, who has cut a wide swath through the dance world for decades, as the creator of groundbreaking, often controversial compositions and because of his outsize persona.

Famously foul-mouthed and uncompromising where his work is concerned, Morris delights in trying to shock his listeners and, sometimes, viewers.  In the studio, he apparently lives in baggy Bermuda shorts, yet he invents exceptionally elegant, flowing movement — frequently juxtaposed with unexpected, humorous, non-"dancy" steps, plus gestures borrowed from Asian, Eastern European, and other traditions.

Morris is clearly delighted to have been tapped as the first artist-in-residence at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which involves a host of events from Feb. 7 to 28. The Mark Morris Dance Group will present a program of works Feb. 9 and 10 danced to music by American composers. Four vintage American musical films selected by Morris will be screened, one each Wednesday in February, with filmed introductions by the master.

In addition, on Feb. 10, building on the success of an innovative program led in Brooklyn by Morris company members, there will be a Philadelphia Dance for PD (Parkinson's Disease) Symposium, featuring workshops for medical professionals and caregivers. The symposium includes a free dance class (registration required) designed for people with Parkinson's, as well.

Morris' dancers will also give a performance for schoolchildren Feb. 9, open to class groups and families who home-school. They'll conduct a master class for local college students Feb. 10.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Hilary Schwab
Mark Morris Dance Group

Morris is the main inspiration and planner for this ambitious series of events, but his presence will be limited and mainly ceremonial. (He'll be in Philadelphia during the run of public performances and the symposium.) Credit also goes to Christopher A. Gruits, the Annenberg's new executive and artistic director, who worked with Morris to develop this project, and whom Morris refers to as "fabulous Chris." Gruits, he said, is brave and smart for inviting the Morris group and  for leading the center in an adventurous new direction.

In this first full season under his leadership, Gruits has programmed Philadelphia and world premieres by major dance, music, and theater artists, including the ambitious play Sleep, based on the Haruki Murakami short story. He said he was particularly excited about the residency, calling Morris “one of the most significant choreographers of our time.”

"Since we are a multidisciplinary performing arts center, we are looking for artists who are interested in areas beyond their core disciplines,"  Gruits said. With his longstanding, in-depth commitment to music and film, Morris fills the bill perfectly, he said.

The Picasso of dance

The recipient of myriad awards, including a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship and 11 honorary doctorates, Morris has been compared to  Picasso and Balanchine.  He has choreographed nearly 150 pieces — including works for opera and ballet troupes, as well as Broadway, and has led his own company since 1980. The Morris group has toured to wide acclaim all over the world, and Morris' fans include cellist Yo-Yo Ma and ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In discussing his work, critics invariably praise Morris' "musicality." Audiences often comment that they can see the structure of the music through the dancing, and this holds true whether he is working with a 17th-century English opera score, traditional Ajerbaijani vocal music, or Beatles tunes.  Morris insists on performance to live music, played by his own Mark Morris Music Ensemble.  This unusual, and expensive, practice brings a special richness and excitement to his pieces.

Morris is also a conductor. He has led his own musicians and singers, off and on, since 2006, and served as guest conductor at national festivals.  And he plays castanets.

During our interview, Morris often went off on tangents.  He would suddenly bring up his passion for a particular South Indian classical singer or his favorite Sri Lankan architect, interrupting our discussion to shout "Look it up, right now. Hang up the phone and check it!"

This enthusiasm for so many  subjects all at once is typical of modern dance's former enfant terrible.  He's now 61 ("I'm aging by the second," Morris lamented), but you'd never guess by the breakneck speed at which he speaks, his tendency to giggle, or the rate at which he continues to produce gorgeous, moving, and funny new dances.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Prudence Upton
Mark Morris Dance Group

Next up for the enfant terrible

When I asked Morris about his plans, he said:  "The future doesn't interest me very much."  He has a contract with Penguin Books for an autobiography, due out next year.  Meanwhile, he added:  "I'm working on some new dances [and] holding rehearsals…. I read and I cook.  My life is very interesting — it's hard, and fun, and easy."

Morris had just returned from India, but he sounded wide awake and more than ready to take on Philadelphia.  He clearly understands the significance of being the Annenberg's inaugural artist-in-residence, noting: "I want there to be a whole bunch of them after me."

Though Morris creates narrative works — like Romeo and Juliet and The Hard Nut — most of his pieces are abstract. That's true of the dances from the early 1990s that make up the Annenberg program, providing a wonderful introduction to Morris' choreographic approach.

Pacific, a Philadelphia premiere, was originally made for the San Francisco Ballet, with music by Lou Harrison, a California composer known for experimenting with non-Western musical instruments, such as the Javanese gamelan. In the dance, the bare-chested male dancers wear long, flowing white skirts splashed with vivid color, mirroring the women's dresses.  Harrison also composed the score for Grand Duo, described by the  New York Times as an enduring masterpiece and famous for its frenetic, rhythmically challenging final movement.

The jazz-inflected piano music of George Gershwin is represented on the program by Three Preludes, a solo Morris originally performed.  The other local premiere, Mosaic and United, is a two-part piece danced to a pair of string quartets by Henry Cowell, a pioneering avant-garde American composer of the 1920s and '30s, with whom both Gershwin and Harrison studied.


Mark Morris Dance Group

  • Public performances 8 p.m. Feb. 9 and 10 at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. Movies 7 p.m. Wednesdays in February. Tickets: dance performances, $32-$77; movies, $10. Information: 215-898-3900, AnnenbergCenter.org.