D.C. gets a foothold with Mark Morris
Local dancers have won plum spots with his troupe, often thanks to a GMU connection
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 (“Not always,” she demurs, folly having been replaced by humbling experience.)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.”
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.