DANCERS WITHOUT BORDERS
Seattle-born dancer and choreographer Mark Morris earned his bona fides in the late 1970s performing with the dance companies of such luminaries as Lar Lubovitch, Hannah Kahn, Laura Dean, and Eliot Feld, as well as the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble. In 1980, he formed his own troupe, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). It is still thriving 35 years later, as audiences will see when the company appears on Tuesday, Oct. 27, in the series presented by Performance Santa Fe at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Through the decades, Morris has created some 150 new works for his company, but he has also found time for other enterprises. From 1988 to 1991, he directed the dance program of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the national opera house of Belgium, and in 1990, he joined Mikhail Baryshnikov to found the White Oak Dance Project, the touring arm of the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation. He is in demand as a guest choreographer for leading international dance companies. Earlier this month, for example, his latest piece, After You, was premiered to critical acclaim by American Ballet Theatre. He has refused to be reined in by the assumed boundaries of the dance world. His résumé includes numerous operatic productions for which he served as director as well as choreographer at such prestigious houses as the Metropolitan Opera; English National Opera; and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. During the past decade he has also become directly involved in musical performances, conducting ensembles with the MMDG as well as at other institutions and even serving as music director of the Ojai Music Festival in 2013.
Morris’ works are characteristically marked by energy, humanity, color, humor, and wit. This should not imply anything formulaic in his approach, and not all of his pieces display all of these characteristics. Still, these are generally part of his underlying attitude as a choreographer, with the result that his work has been embraced with rare enthusiasm by dance diehards while remaining accessible to more casual audiences. Probably his most famous creation is L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a vivid dance setting to Handel’s pastoral ode of the same name, which was itself derived from poetry by John Milton. It became a classic after Morris unveiled it in Brussels in 1988, and it remains an audience magnet to this day. When it first reached New York, in 1990, Anna Kisselgoff described it in the New York Times as “a glorious outpouring of dance invention and humanistic imagery,” a “two-hour cornucopia of theatrical richness” that “impelled the audience at the end into a roaring standing ovation.” (This was back when standing ovations were not awarded as a matter of course.) Earlier this year, a production of the piece, filmed at the Teatro Real in Madrid, was broadcast by PBS in its Great Performances series.
Morris has always placed a central emphasis on music. In 1996, he formed the MMDG Music Ensemble as an integral component of his enterprise. Live music is part of the Mark Morris experience. The company’s dancers are always assisted by living, breathing musicians, and performances are never danced to a prerecorded soundtrack. When the MMDG appears in Santa Fe, it offers three pieces set to musical scores of widely divergent character: Pacific (for nine dancers), danced to two movements of Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano; The (for 16 dancers), to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 as arranged for piano four-hands by Max Reger; and Festival Dance (for 12 dancers), to Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Piano Trio No. 5 in E major.
At the beginning of October, Pasatiempo reached Mark Morris by phone at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, to speak about how music and dance come together in his activities.
Pasatiempo: After your receptionist put my call through and before you picked up, Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto came spilling out of the receiver, and I was sitting here wondering why my bank can’t do that. Mark Morris: Thank you! And let me add that the Mark Morris Dance Center is one of the few places on Earth where you call and a human being answers the phone. No one is on hold unless they’re being connected to somebody else, and this is the sort of music they will hear. It was a Schubert piano trio for a long time, and then at Christmastime we usually do the Ellington version of Nutcracker. Now you know what I want to listen to in my free time. Pasa: In big cities there are opportunities to attend dance performances that have live music, but in the hinterlands it is quite rare. From the perspective of the dancer and choreographer, how big a difference does it make? Morris: The hugest, most enormous difference. We don’t perform with taped music. That’s why we’re now called Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble. If you’re a dancer in my company, you don’t know it any other way. We have live music for every single class in my school, including our Dance for Parkinson’s program and little-baby classes. Even if you’re five years old, there’s at least a drum or a pianist or there’s singing. Every rehearsal has a pianist. I want everybody alive: the audience, the dancers, and the musicians. I don’t go to shows if it’s to the same piece of music everybody else is using — usually by Arvo Pärt lately. I don’t want to watch that. It doesn’t break the bank to hire a pianist instead of using an orchestral recording that everybody owns. So, for me, I won’t do it any other way. Pasa: Was there a watershed moment when you decided you weren’t going to work with canned music?
Morris: I always wanted that. When I was fifteen, I was doing dances that had live piano. When I moved to Brussels, I had much, much freedom. I wasn’t as autonomous as I am having a company here — I was working for the government and for the opera house — but I had any musical forces I wanted. One of my first pieces there was L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which uses an orchestra, a chorus, and vocal soloists. I also did a piece called Wonderland, which was to huge music of Schoenberg. It had a 96-piece orchestra, and it was a dance for five people that had hardly any dancing. My point was: Look at how fabulous this show is with gigantic, terrifying music and the barest minimum of dancing. That’s where I did a piece that had no music at all — a dance called Behemoth —to see if I could do it without music, and it turned out to be a really good dance that we do periodically. But since we tour so much, I use a great deal of chamber music, in different sizes and configurations.
One of the first dances I ever choreographed, in 1981, was to the famous Vivaldi Gloria in D, which I choreographed to a really good recording for Dance Theater Workshop, a little black-box theater. Later we did it without any changes in the choreography but converted it to a proscenium dance for full orchestra, chorus, and soloists. So it was like I was already thinking that way, whether I could do it or not. It translated, too, because I was always working from the score and never just from the sound, so I’m not addicted to a particular performance of any music. Pasa: Were you trained as a musician? Morris: Sort of. My father was an amateur keyboardist. He played what I hated at that time, which was the American songbook, all these great songs from the ’30s and ’40s that I winced to hear and now I love. I learned to read music very young. I always sang, had some theory [instruction], had friends who were musicians, so it has always been around. I always coach the music anyway, and that’s what led me to a little bit of conducting; since I’m already bossing everybody around, I figured that I might as well make that part of what I do. Pasa: I understand that last summer at Tanglewood you conducted a concert performance of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, which is the music you use for your dance The. Morris: Yes, but for the dance we use the weird piano four-hand arrangement by Max Reger. I do that on purpose, because I like it, not because I can’t have an orchestra. So at Tanglewood, I conducted the “band” version, and then afterward the dance was done to the piano four-hand version. It could have been done to the orchestra setting, but I wanted it specifically to be the piano. Pasa: Why did you find Reger’s arrangement of Bach’s music so appealing? Morris: Because it’s so strange. Also because that’s how people used to learn music. Before recordings and well into the 20th century, you sight-read Beethoven symphonies at the piano. That’s how a lot of people learned music. Reger’s version is not even a reduction; it’s an arrangement. The first movement as he sets it doesn’t have any of the triplets in it, the horn-call triplets that you love; they just aren’t there. It’s so bizarre, it’s kind of great. It’s very awkward, hard to play, but it has this machine-like aspect, which is something I like about Bach. It uses quite a lot of dancers, so part of the dynamic is contrasting the scale of big dance to smaller music. Well, it’s really not that small; it’s two people pounding away at a piano.
I switch the order of the last two movements, because I don’t feel it should end with a minuet. This particular minuet has so many trios, it’s like enough already. When we place it as the penultimate movement, it has more logic. That way the dance ends with the fabulous, very rapid Allegro.
I do love things about Beethoven’s work — it’s so butch and dominating — but he sort of drowned out poor Hummell, who was such a fine composer and super-popular at the time.
Pasa: The is about the most noncommittal title imaginable. What’s that all about? Morris: I don’t know. Everyone knows the music; whether you think you know it or not, you know it. You can call it either “Thee” or The. I once did a dance called V that also could be called “Five,” to the Schumann Piano Quintet, and the dancers dance in a V, so you can make the title mean whatever you need it to. Pasa: Did you commission the Piano Trio by the late Lou Harrison, which you use for Pacific? Morris: No, but I did commission a piece called Rhymes With Silver. Lou gave me a kit for some of it. He was basically saying, “You [mess] around with everything anyway, so now put this one together.” I’ve done eight or nine pieces to his music. This piano trio — it’s only the last two movements of it — I choreographed for San Francisco Ballet about 20 years ago. Pasa: It’s interesting to see that you landed on a piano trio by Johann Nepomuk Hummel for your Festival Dances. And I gather you are using a different Hummel piece for your new dance at ABT. Morris: If it weren’t for Beethoven, everybody would still know Hummel. Beethoven made a total eclipse. He won. I find a lot of Beethoven’s music kind of bullying, I must tell you. I think of him like Richard Serra, who dropped his big rusted arcs on the rest of contemporary art. And I do love things about Beethoven’s work — it’s so butch and dominating — but he sort of drowned out poor Hummel, who was such a fine composer and super-popular at the time.
The Hummel piece I’m using for ABT is his crazy Septet militaire, the third piece of Hummel’s I have done. You know, I won’t let them use a recording when they take the piece on tour, so they asked if at least I could limit the music to a piece of chamber music. I was on the music staff at the Banff music center, and I coached the darling young musicians there in the Hummel Septet for my own purposes. They played it great, and it didn’t sound like any of the recordings.
It really gave me a fabulous X-ray-spectacles look at the music. Pasa: When you see dance performed to recordings, do you sit there thinking how much better it could be if there were live musicians? Morris: Anybody can do whatever she wants to as a choreographer in relation to music or no music. I’m not the rule of this. But I figure if you’re using music, you should know something about it. And there should be some relationship — because there automatically is, even from the fabulous Cage-Cunningham point of view. By the way, they always had live music. People think they didn’t because a lot of it was electronically produced, but Merce was the only one who always used live music.
Because I use live music, I can use music that hasn’t been recorded. I’m not subject to whatever you can buy on Amazon. I sometimes commission music where it was written for me and nobody else can use it or hear it. You have to come to my show to hear it. I love that. So many choreographers have the same taste in music; it goes in waves. Everybody was using Phil Glass 20 years ago, and now they’re using Arvo Pärt and that guy who writes for movies — what’s his name? Before that it was the Barber Adagio for Strings, or there was a big Baroque period that Paul Taylor thinks he started. I’m not very faddish in that way, and I have a broad knowledge of repertory, and I know a lot of musicians, so I can sort of do what I want. Pasa: When you listen to music, do you have choreography ticking away in your mind? Morris: No. When I listen, I don’t see dances. I choose music because I like it, and I study the music and work on it. For example, this Hummel piece for ABT: I have some ideas, but I don’t decide in advance what it’s going to be like in great detail, because when it comes to the choreography, I’m making it up on the dancers in the room at that time. Eventually I reach the point where I’m solving physical problems in my head because I’ve already been making up the dance for a few weeks. But when I first start, it’s more a question of trying this or that based on some musical gesture or some rhythmic thing. I try not to make up the same dance twice in a row. I often pick music that is irritating or problematic in some way, which means there’s a hook of some sort, something odd. Pasa: It is not uncommon to hear certain dancers described as “musical,” which seems to mean they have a lyrical line. That’s not necessarily how a musician would use the word “musical.” Do you think some dancers are especially “musical,” and if so, what does that mean to you? Morris: I don’t really know what that means. I think it means they are conscious of music and their relationship to it. It’s not just rhythmical, not just lyrical. Calling a dancer “musical” also used to be secret code for “gay.” I kind of like that definition!
I’m a big fan of South Indian music and Indian dance in general. I go to Chennai every couple of years for the festival of South Indian classical music, which is so sophisticated and thrilling. In the United States, if you dance on the beat and go along with the music sort of exactly, that’s considered terrible somehow; there is this attitude that the music and the dance are supposed to have a separate life. That’s one way to do it. But Indian musicians who are out of tune or out of time, they don’t perform. The audience attitude is “If you can’t keep a beat and tell a story at the same time, what right do you have to present this music or dancing to us?” It becomes what American audiences wrongly think is obvious music visualization, or “Mickey Mousing.” But I like that. I like people who can walk on the beat and sing in time. It’s not just rhythmic; it’s that all the details of music are manifested in a certain way physically. And it’s not a walk-step-per-beat relationship. It’s a phrase thing. It’s rhythmic; it’s internal rhythm within phrases. Everyone can dance together without looking the same. It’s like how a chorus sounds great and each individual is important but they all have different voices and personalities, even though they are strictly coordinating on pitch and in time. That doesn’t make it fascistic; it makes it accurate and exciting.
Anybody can do whatever she wants to as a choreographer in relation to music or no music. I’m not the rule of this. But I figure if you’re using music, you should know something about it.
Two stills from Pacific, photos Hilary Schwab; opposite page, Mark Morris, photo Amber Star Merkens
I learned to read music very young.
I always sang, had some theory, had friends who were musicians, so it has
always been around. I always coach the music anyway, and that’s what led me to a little bit of conducting; since I’m already bo sing everybody around, I figured that I might as well make that part of what I do.
Mark Morris in Dido and Aeneas, which
premiered in 1989, photo Tom Brazil