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Plainspoken: On Mark Morris | The Nation

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Plainspoken: On Mark Morris

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Mark Morris leads audience members in a sing-along at the Ojai Music Festival

Mark Morris leads audience members in a sing-along at the Ojai Music Festival last June.

”Dance? Dance is pretty much just people dancing.” The choreographer Mark Morris is responding to a question from one of fifty or so earnest music lovers gathered for a performance of his work. It is the second night of the Ojai Music Festival, held in the bucolic hippy enclave of Ojai, California, about a two-hour drive northeast from LA. Morris is looking very pleased with himself, in rumpled cargo shorts, a red polo shirt, matching red socks and Franciscan-style sandals. With his broad chest and even broader belly, a scraggly beard, leonine head of graying hair and gleaming greenish eyes, he looks like a Welsh poet, a mischievous Buddha, a disheveled and possibly disreputable emperor. In his right hand he daintily clasps a tartan umbrella angled to protect his eyes from the waning sun. Something about the arrangement of his limbs as he perches on a stool—the extreme angle of his knees, perhaps—reveals the uncanny flexibility of a former dancer. “I was a fabulously good dancer,” he tells me later, and it’s true, too. I’ve seen the tapes.

Every summer for the last sixty-seven years, Ojai’s main street and outdoor amphitheater have been overrun by avid consumers of contemporary music, mostly of the experimental and avant-garde variety. A new music director is selected each year, though some have made repeated appearances. Pierre Boulez has been in charge on seven separate occasions, Stravinsky twice, as well as Esa-Pekka Salonen (twice) and John Adams (once). This time around, the baton was passed to Morris, the first choreographer to be invited. One wonders whether any of the previous musical eminences would have had the gumption to describe Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as “that sob-fest, boo-hoo” or to define tone clusters as “hitting the piano with your fist and calling it a day.”

Morris’s level of participation is astonishing. With the encouragement of Tom Morris (no relation), the festival’s permanent artistic director and guardian angel, the choreographer has cooked up a dizzying assortment of events, up to ten a day, certainly more than is remotely possible to take in. He is everywhere, at just about every talk, every performance (even the early morning concerts at a meditation center in the hills) and every late night event. These include a karaoke night—accompanied by the jazz trio the Bad Plus—and social dancing with patrons and assorted guests. Morris’s dancers, who perform on the second night of the festival, are nearly as ubiquitous. They sing at the karaoke night and at an afternoon concert of gamelan music by the West Coast composer Lou Harrison, and attend concerts—always as a group—when they’re not rehearsing or teaching morning exercise classes. They look more like an appealing and youthful band of acolytes than a dance troupe; they bring their babies to rehearsals and appear perfectly content to tag along with their boss to most events rather than head off on their own to eat ice cream or read in the shade.

At the dance party, Morris whips up a series of rounds, one based on the polka, the other on the waltz. He exhorts the participants to hold hands with strangers and look into their eyes, frankly, without irony. The dances are fun to do, and not without their small complications—steps that go toward and away from the center, lines turning in opposite directions, a slap here, a slap there. Like the karaoke, they are accompanied by live music, an obsession of Morris’s. His company performs exclusively to live accompaniment—anything from solo piano to full orchestra and chorus—and has done so for most of its thirty-three years. (In 1996, it officially made a commitment to have live music at every show and formed its own musical ensemble.) When dancers move to recorded music, steps can become fixed and stale; it is possible to perform without actively listening or responding to minute changes in tempo, accent, dynamics. Plus, recordings reduce the choreographer’s options—what if he or she likes a certain passage a little faster or slower or louder or more staccato? Performing to live music is extremely rare in the world of dance: the Paul Taylor Dance Company usually performs to recordings, as do Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey and many of the smaller ballet troupes. That live music represents a significant expense (just under 10 percent of Morris’s budget last year) is no excuse, in his opinion: “It’s bullshit. You can afford it. You can get some darling student to play a synthesizer or a drum or singers or make the sound yourself, or use electronic music that’s meant to be that way.” On this point, and others, he is uncompromising.

* * *

From the beginning, life and work in Morris’s company have amounted to almost the same thing. Back in the late 1970s, when he got his start in New York City—he moved there in 1976 to dance and put on his first show at the Merce Cunningham Studios four years later—Morris’s friends used to take the train over to his loft in Hoboken to drink beer, watch television, eat food he had prepared, listen to records and do folk dances, devised by Morris. The group—centered around his interests, enthusiasms and imagination—is his natural habitat. (Paul Taylor, in contrast, spends long periods of the year on his own on Long Island.) He expects his company and trusted collaborators—people like Nancy Umanoff, his intimidatingly efficient and down-to-earth executive director—to be engaged, “interested in the world, in art, in books, food, Jeopardy, sex and everything else,” in the words of Maile Okamura, a dancer with the company since 2001. He also draws ideas from the group dynamic. “He’s very interested in behavior in a group,” Okamura notes, and those interactions show up in his dances.

It is also a reflection of how he works. ”I make up everything in the room with the dancers,” he recently told an interviewer on NPR. “I don’t work in the studio alone ever.” First he gets a certain feeling, an itch triggered by a piece of music. That, of course, is a solitary experience, though he is famous for coercing everyone he knows into listening to the music he loves. Then there is the period of mulling, which may last years. He studies the musical score. (“He’s a scrupulous analyst,” says the musicologist Simon Morrison, who collaborated with him on a Romeo and Juliet based on Prokofiev’s original version of the ballet score. “He reads all the technical literature.”) But once he decides to make a dance the real work begins, in the studio, score in hand, with his dancers. (He is one of very few choreographers to use the musical score; another was Balanchine, who used to create his own piano reductions.) Which is not to say that the dancers improvise or help come up with steps. “There is this strange assumption that people make…where they wonder, are you a complete fascist/tyrant/dictator or do the dancers improvise?  Well, neither.  I mean, it’s more that I’m a fascist dictator, but the dancers dance. They contribute by dancing.” The dancers are his instruments, the movement itself.

In addition to the modern dance works for his company, Morris has also made ballets, with pointe work, for various troupes, including American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. He also teaches a daily ballet class for his dancers at the Mark Morris Dance Center, the company’s headquarters in Brooklyn. Unlike modern dance masters of previous generations such as Martha Graham and José Limon (and to a certain extent Paul Taylor) who created their own technique, Morris is happy to teach ballet, which he considers a kind of lingua franca of dance, complete enough to prepare the body for all kinds of movement. In his own ballets, he tends to downplay the Balanchinean ideals of extreme lightness, speed and hyper-flexibility. In Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988), a chamber work for ABT based on a series of limpid piano études by Virgil Thomson, the movements of the dancers have a pleasing weight and loose-limbed feel; they sink down into deep pliés, tip over until they are about to fall, and torque their upper bodies to give each position a lush three-dimensional quality. (You can watch passages from Drink to Me on YouTube.) Because of the way dancing on point accentuates gender specificity, ballet allows him to toy with the way men partner and lift women, though even here, his focus remains more on the ensemble and the individual than on the balletic ideal of the couple. His recent Beaux, for the San Francisco Ballet, is an ensemble work for nine men, with, in his words, “no fighting, no competition and no sexual predation.” 

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