Pasatiempo - - ART IN REVIEW - James M. Keller

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

Fes­ti­val Dance, photo Richard Ter­mine

The, photo Hi­lary Scott

Fes­ti­val Dance, photo Am­ber Star Merkens

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