D.C. gets a foothold with Mark Mor­ris

Lo­cal dancers have won plum spots with his troupe, of­ten thanks to a GMU con­nec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY SARAH KAUF­MAN

Rita Don­ahue was in high school when she saw the Mark Mor­ris Dance Group for the first time. Her mother, a fan of cel­list Yo-Yo Ma, took her to Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity’s Cen­ter for the Arts to see Mor­ris’s “Fall­ing Down Stairs,” with Ma play­ing Bach’s Third Suite for unac­com­pa­nied cello on­stage, as the dancers swirled around him.

Don­ahue, a se­ri­ous dance stu­dent at the time, fell in love with the mu­sic and with the tum­bling, slip­pery, soar­ing qual­ity of the danc­ing. “I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘I could do that,’ ” she says, laugh­ing drily at her folly.

Turns out Don­ahue, 30, can do it now. (“Not al­ways,” she de­murs, folly hav­ing been re­placed by hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence.) Af­ter dou­ble-ma­jor­ing in English and dance at Ge­orge Ma­son, where she per­formed in a stu­dent pro­duc­tion of a Mor­ris work and was coached by the chore­og­ra­pher him­self on one of his stopovers there, the Fair­fax na­tive won a cov­eted spot in Mor­ris’s com­pany.

That was in 2003, and it marked the be­gin­ning of a trail of Washington area dancers to the Mark Mor­ris Dance Cen­ter in Brook­lyn, head­quar­ters of Mor­ris’s ac­claimed mod­ern-dance com­pany. To­day, among the troupe’s 18 dancers, four are lo­cal. At least three of them (and pos­si­bly the fourth, an un­der­study) are slated to ap­pear dur­ing the Dance Group’s an­nual en­gage­ment at Ge­orge Ma­son this Fri­day and Satur­day. The pro­gram, fea­tur­ing live cham­ber mu­sic and four dances (in­clud-

ing Mor­ris’s new­est, “Pet­ri­chor”) is one of the sea­son’s biggest events in mod­ern dance.

That’s a siz­able chunk of sub­ur­ban Washington in Mor­ris’s com­pany, which tours in­ter­na­tion­ally and is one of the busiest in the coun­try. Dance po­si­tions of any sort — bal­let, mod­ern or other forms — are ex­ceed­ingly hard to come by: The ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion Dance/USA re­ports that in 2009, there were 4,500 dancers in per­form­ing-arts com­pa­nies.

(In troupes like Mor­ris’s, with bud­gets of $3 mil­lion and up, Dance/USA counts just 1,329 dancers. Those in the top mod­ern-dance com­pa­nies can make about $35,000 a year.)

The com­pe­ti­tion for jobs adds ex­tra bril­liance to the achieve­ments and good for­tune of Don­ahue, Wil­liam Smith III, Spencer Ramirez and Elisa Clark, to name the four lo­cal dancers in Mor­ris’s troupe.

This area may be re­puted for the overblown egos of its po­lit­i­cal elite, but its cre­ative capita— at least in dance— is of a qui­eter sort. Worka­holics rule the stu­dios. And more than that, if we can go by the suc­cess that these dancers have had with Mor­ris, those who de­velop an ego-less air stand out, para­dox­i­cally, to chore­og­ra­phers look­ing for ver­sa­tile per­form­ers that they can groom to their lik­ing.

The Fair­fax con­nec­tion

Dan Joyce, a dance pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity, is one of the links be­tween Mor­ris and Fair­fax. He was a mem­ber of the Mark Mor­ris Dance Group from 1988 to 1998. About eight years ago Joyce and fel­low pro­fes­sor Su­san Shields, who also danced with Mor­ris, be­gan teach­ing Mor­ris works to their stu­dents; that led to the chore­og­ra­pher over­see­ing re­hearsals when his com­pany hap­pened to be per­form­ing on cam­pus.

“What he does not ap­pre­ci­ate is melo­drama,” Joyce says. “Maybe that’s why he’s been at­tracted to our dancers — a lot of dancers have af­fec­ta­tions they are not aware of or in con­trol of. He needs peo­ple who are a blank slate that he can mold.”

This is be­cause Mor­ris in­vents a dif­fer­ent move­ment vo­cab­u­lary with just about ev­ery dance. There is no Mor­ris tech­nique, as there is for Martha Gra­ham or Merce Cunningham. He bor­rows freely from var­i­ous schools and epochs of bal­let, from through­out the mod­ern dance spec­trum, and mostly from his own imag­in­ings.

“I think that’s some­thing he does not get enough credit for,” Joyce says. “He doesn’t make the same work over and over.” For this rea­son, Joyce adds, he needs dancers who can change their look and style as eas­ily as he does.

Ask Mor­ris what he looks for in a dancer, though, and af­ter nam­ing mu­si­cal­ity and the abil­ity to get along with ev­ery­one, he’s at a loss to de­scribe what uni­fies his group. And for good rea­son: The as­sort­ment of sizes, shapes and per­son­al­i­ties among his dancers is one of the hall­marks of his art. His works feel pro­foundly hu­man in some mea­sure be­cause his dancers are not ex­treme body types— nei­ther run­way thin nor ropily mus­cu­lar. They have a nat­u­ral, ev­ery­day ap­pear­ance.

Find­ing them, though, is not Mor­ris’s fa­vorite ac­tiv­ity; he calls the au­di­tion process “ hor­ri­ble” and “ex­haust­ing.”

“It’s no fun,” Mor­ris says. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to see if peo­ple can dance or not from an au­di­tion.”

But while he doesn’t re­mem­ber Rita Don­ahue’s try­out, she will never for­get it. Over two days of classes and learn­ing chore­og­ra­phy, some 350 hope­fuls were re­duced to 10. Each was spo­ken to in pri­vate. As she watched the other dancers leave af­ter hear­ing bad news, Don­ahue feared Mor­ris wasn’t hir­ing any­one that day.

“ They told me last, ” Don­ahue says. “ The girl in front of me didn’t get the job. I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ Then all I heard was, ‘You’re hired.’ And I did the re­quired scream­ing.”

Then there’s ex­cel­lent tim­ing. Billy Smith had danced in two Mor­ris works while a stu­dent at Ge­orge Ma­son. He had re­ceived a fel­low­ship in civil en­gi­neer­ing but gave it up to de­vote him­self to danc­ing.

“I feel like Mark’s work sat­is­fies that log­i­cal part of me, the part that likes a clear, def­i­nite an­swer,” says the 25-yearold from Fred­er­icks­burg. “It’s art and it doesn’t have to make sense. But to me, with his struc­ture, you end up say­ing ‘Oh, yes, of course it makes sense.’ ”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Smith per­formed for two years with David Par­sons’s com­pany, Par­sons Dance. Dur­ing a lull in the tour­ing sched­ule, he re­turned to Ge­orge Ma­son to fill in for one of his for­mer dance in­struc­tors. Mor­ris’s group hap­pened to be per­form­ing there, and Smith gath­ered up his courage to ask if he could take class with the com­pany, join­ing the dancers in their daily prac­tice of steps and tech­nique. A few days later, Mor­ris hired him as a sup­ple­men­tal dancer for his largescale pro­duc­tions, “ The Hard Nut” — the chore­og­ra­pher’s rev­e­la­tory comic-book take on “ The Nutcracker” — and “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” his ex­ul­tant re­sponse to the Han­del or­a­to­rio.

A few months af­ter that Mor­ris hired Smith full time.

“Some­thing’s work­ing right,” says Mor­ris of his luck with Ma­son stu­dents. “Some­thing’s hap­pen­ing well enough that I’ve found these peo­ple.”

Gentle­men at the barre

Last sum­mer, Spencer Ramirez had fin­ished his sopho­more year in dance at the Juil­liard School and was on his way to visit his par­ents in Spring­field when he found out that Mor­ris was hold­ing amen’s au­di­tion. Ramirez had just landed at Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port; he made his way onto a bus to NewYork and got to Mor­ris’s try­outs in time. He’d had noth­ing to eat all day, and as he sur­veyed his com­pe­ti­tion, he re­al­ized that, at 20, he was the youngest, and green­est. He didn’t think he’d last long.

But by the end of the day, Ramirez had been hired as an ap­pren­tice.

Ramirez’s good for­tune is even more re­mark­able given that he has stud­ied dance for only five years and had seen Mor­ris’s com­pany per­form only once be­fore his au­di­tion. Ramirez had been a se­ri­ous pi­ano stu­dent from the age of 9, and was 15 be­fore he be­gan tak­ing jazz dance at Spring­field’s Metropoli­tan Fine Arts Cen­ter. Soon he was get­ting per­mis­sion to leave high school early ev­ery­day to drive him­self around the Belt­way to Sil­ver Spring’s Mary­land Youth Bal­let.

“Just try­ing to stay awake was the key,” he says with a laugh.

Michelle Lees, Mary­land Youth Bal­let’s prin­ci­pal, says that both Ramirez and Smith, who had made a guest ap­pear­ance in her school’s pro­duc­tion of “ The Nutcracker,” were “just re­ally nice guys, and that’s hard to come by.” Bal­let boys, she lamented, can tend to be spoiled — there are so few of them, and they are so sought af­ter. But those two were gentle­men: pa­tient with the younger stu­dents, re­spect­ful to their teach­ers. (And blessed with com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties, too: The two now room to­gether in Har­lem.)

Ramirez, who was Lees’s stu­dent for nearly two years, “worked his guts out.”

“He had nat­u­ral abil­ity,” Lees says. “It was kind of hard to rein him in. He’s a dancer who would be gob­bling up space and do­ing split jumps — it just came so eas­ily to him.”

(Ramirez may also get to per­form at GMU on Feb. 4-5; he is un­der­study­ing sev­eral roles.)

In good com­pany

Prince Ge­orge’s County na­tive Elisa Clark, 32, also trained at Mary­land Youth Bal­let, where her mother, Rhodie Jor­gen­son, is on the fac­ulty. She is “ex­tremely tal­ented — I mean ex­tremely tal­ented — and ex­traor­di­nar­ily mu­si­cal,” Lees says. Clark went on to Juil­liard af­ter high school, and danced with chore­og­ra­phers Lar Lubovitch and Robert Bat­tle.

In 2006 she took a class with Mor­ris at his Dance Cen­ter, and got up her nerve to speak with him after­ward. “I told him I ad­mired his work; he said, ‘Well, you’re good, ya know,’ ” she says with a laugh. “He told me to leave my con­tact in­for­ma­tion. I had a re­sume in my bag, but I couldn’t bring my­self to leave it. So I wrote my name and e-mail on a piece of paper.” A cou­ple of weeks later she got a call ask­ing her to un­der­study in “L’Allegro.” She joined the com­pany a short while later.

But af­ter five years, Clark plans to leave the Dance Group af­ter its March per­for­mances, to go free­lance and do more teach­ing. “I’m ready to have a bit more free­dom,” she says.

The con­nec­tion with Mor­ris will un­doubt­edly go on at Ma­son. But he’s not the only chore­og­ra­pher who works with the dance stu­dents there. For their spring con­cert this year, Ma­son stu­dents are learn­ing works by Lubovitch, Ohad Na­harin and Bat­tle, the di­rec­tor-des­ig­nate of Alvin Ai­ley Amer­i­can Dance Theater.

“You learn to be great by do­ing great work,” says Joyce, the GMU pro­fes­sor. “For them to re­hearse and rise to the oc­ca­sion with some­one of Mark’s cal­iber, and to get to in­ter­act with some­one of his stature, is amaz­ing, and pretty rare.

“ The school of mu­sic may per­form Mozart, but they can’t bring Mozart to re­hearsal. We can and we do.”

PHO­TOS BY HELAYNE SEI­D­MAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

CAP­I­TAL STEPS: D.C.-bred dancers Rita Don­ahue and Spencer Ramirez, left, and Elisa Clark and Wil­liam Smith III, mem­bers of theMarkMor­ris Dance Group, prac­tice for it­sGMUper­for­mances Feb. 4-5.

HIGH HOPES: Spencer Ramirez of Spring­field is un­der­study­ing sev­eral roles for theGMUper­for­mances.

A LEG UP: Elisa Clark of Prince Ge­orge’s County joined the troupe in 2006 af­terMor­ris saw her dance in a class.

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