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'Petrichor,' step by step

Mark Morris selected the title, and the rest came later

“Isn’t it the best word you’ve never heard before?’’ says Mark Morris (pictured) of the title for his new dance, “Petrichor.’’ “Isn’t it the best word you’ve never heard before?’’ says Mark Morris (pictured) of the title for his new dance, “Petrichor.’’ (Tom Heisler/The New York Times)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / October 10, 2010

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The scent that fills the air when the rain comes after a long spell of warm, dry weather: There’s a word for it, and choreographer Mark Morris has named a new dance after it.

“Petrichor’’ will make its world premiere this week when the Mark Morris Dance Group opens Celebrity Series of Boston’s season on a program that also includes the Boston premieres of “Excursions’’ (2008) and “Empire Garden’’ (2009). “Petrichor,’’ set to Heitor Villa-Lobos’s String Quartet No. 2, was commissioned by Celebrity Series in honor of Martha H. Jones, its president and executive director, who is retiring at the end of the season. As is customary for the dance company, all of the music will be performed live.

Morris, 54, recently discussed his work by phone from New York.

Q. What about a piece of music inspires you to choreograph a dance to it — or am I wrong in thinking that, for you, it all starts with the music?

A. It always starts with music. Well, first of all, I have to like it. Second, it has to be good enough to hear hundreds if not thousands of times, and there has to be something in it that is a surprise to me. And, you know, it certainly doesn’t have to be written for dancing. That’s very often a reason not to use a piece of music. And it has to make sense in my repertory.

Q. Why is live music so important to you in performance?

A. Really? [laughs] That’s an actual question?

Q. Yeah, why? Seriously. Because — you know this — there are dance companies all over that think there’s no difference between live and recorded music.

A. Right. So I’m supposed to defend that I like live music and they don’t?

Q. No, no, no. I don’t ask you to defend it.

A. The question is “Why don’t you use live music?’’ to everybody else.

Q. OK. All right. Can you talk about it that way?

A. Um, yeah. Well, first of all, unless you’re using music that was written in order to be reproduced electronically, you shouldn’t. If you don’t have enough money to use gigantic orchestral music with a giant orchestra, don’t choreograph to it. There’s always a pianist who’s eager and maybe you can afford. I think it’s the most important possible thing. And of course people can choreograph however the hell they want to, regardless of their attachment or affiliation with music. You can make up a dance with no music, of course. Some people only work to recorded music because it’s so reliable and exactly the same every time, which is exactly why I don’t. Wouldn’t you rather have live people doing something? A recording of a performance is a recording of a performance. It’s not the performance. It’s not the text of the music presented, I think, as it should be. And, you know, I’m not saying, “Shame on everybody for not doing that, doing what I do,’’ ’cause it’s of course expensive and complicated and makes a lot more people on the road and it’s a lot more work. For me it’s more than worth it. It’s the whole point of what I do.

Q. I wonder if you’d be willing to talk about why the word “petrichor’’ appealed to you as the title of the dance you’ll premiere here.

A. Well, isn’t that the best word you’ve ever looked up? Isn’t it the best word you’ve never heard before? It’s a gorgeous word, the sense of which people use all the time but have no word for it. I liked it, so I named my dance that. Long before I made up the dance. It had a title before there were any steps to it.

Q. So possible titles come sometimes before dances.

A. Mm-hmm. I love making up titles. You know, it’s interesting because it makes people tempted to think that something has a relevance that it either does or doesn’t have. There’s a dance we do called “A Lake,’’ and I just called it “A Lake’’ because it occurred to me that I should call a dance “A Lake.’’ There’s no lake in the dance. But, you know, “petrichor,’’ it’s a fabulous word that I’d never heard before. The dance is, first of all, it’s for all women. There’s eight women in the dance, and it’s this amazing piece of music that’s very under-known and a very tricky, beautiful piece of music. And, you know, Villa-Lobos was very devoted to his Brazilian heritage. He says that all of his music is Brazilian; it all contains the rain forest. I’m not Brazilian, the dance isn’t a rain forest, and the title seemed to work.

Q. Why did you decide that this should be a dance for women?

A. Because several of my senior male dancers left the company. They decided it was time to go on to another phase of their lives. And so I have new men whom I’m bringing up to speed with the repertory, and they’re great, and so meanwhile I was working with all women all day, which was fabulous. Within a dance I’ll have a men’s dance or a women’s dance sometimes, but a whole piece just for women is something I haven’t really done. In this case it was like, well, I have a whole lot of women waiting around for something to do. Let me make up a gorgeous dance for them. So I have [laughs].

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, Thursday through Oct. 17. Tickets $53-$80. 617-824-8000, www.aestages.org