Morris dancing, which goes back some 700 years in England, is no stranger to Boston. The Pinewoods Morris Men, the oldest morris team in North America, have been a fixture in Revels performances for decades. And for 40 years now, morris dancers have celebrated May Day in Cambridge, waving their white handkerchiefs and jingling the bells strapped to their legs.
But a theatrical show built around morris dancing is a different matter. And that’s what the North American group Maple Morris and its United Kingdom counterpart Morris Offspring are planning with “Rootbound,” which they’ll present at the Arts at the Armory Performance Hall in Somerville July 15, then four days later in Toronto. The show, which is described as “the story of a dancer’s journey in the North American morris dance community,” will have songs from Ian Robb, lyrics from Susan Cooper, and original choreography from Maple Morris and Morris Offspring.
So, what about the journey of the Maple Morris dancers? When talking to four of them — Nathaniel Smith, Amelia Mason, Gillian Stewart, and Erika Roderick — in the cozy apartment Smith and Roderick share just outside Somerville’s Davis Square, it turns out that they’re all children of morris dancers. What’s more, they’ve all been Revels children, or at least Revels teens. So the dancing is in the blood, and they were introduced to performance at an early age. They all dance with local groups: Smith with the Pinewoods Morris Men, Mason, Stewart, and Roderick with Muddy River.
Maple Morris, Smith explains, is “a community of second-generation morris dancers in North America. It started in 2005, and the idea came from a Canadian group, hence the name Maple Morris. The folks who started it were all children of morris dancers who had been going to morris events for their entire lives. They kept seeing other folks their own age and thought it might be a fun idea to have a weekend just for the younger morris dancers.” Roderick chimes in, “People who were just like us but grew up somewhere else. They feel like old friends because they’ve had the same life.”
For a while it was just an event in Toronto, but then the Boston folks decided they wanted to host their own gathering, and it spread to Washington, D.C. All these get-togethers turned the event into something more like a team. And then Maple Morris got asked to dance as a team, at one of the biggest events of the year, the Marlboro Morris Ale in Brattleboro, Vt.
Meanwhile, a similar English outfit, Morris Offspring, was forming, and its director, Laurel Swift, came up with the idea of morris dancing as a stage performance, with a full band and lighting and dances that were less traditional, with more than the usual six or eight performers. Members of Maple Morris met Swift when she was invited to the Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth. The result was that the North American troupe wound up traveling to London to take part in Morris Offspring’s 2011 stage show “Must Come Down.”
Stewart describes “Must Come Down” as “based on the idea of a traditional English fair, so it started with lots of different groups of people dancing and singing.” There was morris dancing and stepdancing and traditional songs and storytelling. It was an intensive week of rehearsals for just one performance at Cecil Sharp Hall near Regent’s Park, and they loved what Roderick calls “the new mode of morris.”
That led to Maple Morris inviting Morris Offspring to cross the pond for a return engagement. Like “Must Come Down,” “Rootbound” will celebrate this new mode of morris; at some point there’ll be more than 40 dancers on stage. Fourteen will be members of Morris Offspring, and some of them will be staying in this Davis Square apartment Roderick calls “folk hotel USA.”
“You don’t realize how many you can fit till you fit them,” she says.
But how will “Rootbound” differ from “Must Come Down”?
“The biggest difference between Maple and Offspring,” Mason explains, “is that we’re a collective, and we have committees. We think of ourself as a democracy, and Offspring is definitely a benevolent dictatorship.”
So it took Maple a while to come up with a theme for “Rootbound,” which will run about two hours with intermission. Stewart describes it as being about “how tradition is passed down through generations. We decided we wanted to do a more character- and loosely plot-based show. ‘Must Come Down’ was more atmospheric. Our show has two characters, a fool, which is a traditional character in morris dancing, and then a child who is learning to dance.”
The show will have a full band by morris standards: Mason (the group’s bandleader) on fiddle, Roderick on guitar, Emily Troll on accordion, Canadian folk singer and morris dancer Robb on concertina, and some other dancers who’ll be doubling as musicians. Maple Morris is bringing in Robb to perform one or two of his own songs. He’ll also sing the lyrics that were written by Cooper, whom they knew from Revels: Her poem “The Shortest Day” is read every year as part of “The Christmas Revels.”
In the course of the project, Cooper invited Maple Morris to her house in Marshfield. “They came down here,” she says when reached by phone, “and we spent the day discussing what we were going to do and me putting in my five cents occasionally.”
The four Maple Morris members rate her contribution as being worth a lot more than that. “It was a guidance workshop,” says Stewart.
In the end, Cooper recalls, “they said, ‘If you write the verse, we will set it to music.’ And I said, ‘It is much easier actually to write verse to an existing tune.’ ” So they chose the traditional tune “Brigg Fair,” and Cooper wrote eight verses. “They told me the narrative shape they wanted, and the lyrics were designed to fit that. It seems to me that the image of Maple Morris is springtime, because they’re all so young. They are the new generation of the tradition. And I had that in my head when I was writing the lyrics.”
Stewart speaks to that sense of being the new generation. “On the one hand, you’re aware of the tradition and the history, and how people talk about traditional dances and traditional tunes and traditional music. And at the same time, it’s a living tradition, and so what you’re doing becomes tradition.”
Mason has the last word: “I always think the definition of tradition is, you do it every year.”