Interview: Choreographer Mark Morris

Mark Morris is one of the most respected contemporary dance choreographers working today, and on Friday, his Mark Morris Dance Group comes to the AT&T Performing Arts Center. FrontRow Dance critic spoke to Morris about his work and his career.

Front Row: At such a young age, you have already created some truly original masterworks like “L’Allegro,” which was created in Brussels in 1988. “Gloria” and “Songs that Tell a Story” with music by the Louvin Brothers as well as the “Hard Nut.” Do you have a favorite composition of your own? If so which piece is it? Why?

Mark Morris: Well I’m not going to give you that corny lie answer that I’m most interested in the work I’m currently creating. Or that lie of “I love all my children equally,” but it’s true the ones that are in active repertoire I am interested in the most. That’s why they are back. Certainly Dido is one of the things I am most proud of. You know, “L’Allegro” is great, but to me it kills something to refer to it as a masterwork. I mean if you call it that yourself. I just think it’s gorgeous wonderful dance from years ago. That’s the reason I make up all sorts of dances, so that I can like them for different reasons. I make up a lot of chamber music dances; sort of smaller scale shorter pieces that I love and sometimes people overlook those. Actually Visitation is one of those. It’s kind of short and subtle and not spectacular, there are no fireworks. Every piece doesn’t have to shout.

FR: Mark Morris Dance Group is an American company. US coins are minted with the words, “E Pluribus Unim” Despite having such different and varied dancers, your company manages to present itself as a group of individuals moved by a common goal. How do you accomplish that?

MM:  Practice, practice, practice. First of all I hire people who are versatile, intelligent and basically kind, have good imaginations and can work well with others. That’s the beginning of it, and then we have to have a co-pathetic relationship to music. Whether the like the music I use or not they have to a least why I come up with what I do. These people are very well versed in many styles of listening and dancing. I think that’s part of it, and you know it’s a very small company where we kinda have to get along. You can only hold a grudge for so long and then you run out of energy.

FR: It’s always apparent to me when I see your work performed there is a cohesion that’s so beautiful weather your own company is dancing you work or you’ve set it on an entirely different company.

MM: I was talking about this yesterday with somebody, a dance critic writing   about something totally different. That well, of course we work really hard but you know whenever I work with ballet companies I kill myself trying to get stylistically what I want. That means I don’t want a giant Grande Battement to arabesque, but lower and subtler and lighter stuff. The dancers always think that it’s easy, cause they are not killing themselves every second but it’s actually much more difficult because it’s more subtle and nuanced. Reviewers always say, weather they liked the dances or not that the ballet company dancers looked so relaxed or comfortable and confident. Its like, “wow, I love that…sounds like I gave them a sleeping pill or something.” So, that’s what I’m after and it’s great to hear it actually comes through.

FR: One of the pieces you will be presenting at the Winspear Opera House is, “V.” How did you come to select Robert Schumann’s glorious Quintet in E-flat Major for piano and strings, Opus 44?

MM: First of all it’s the first piano quintet ever written specifically for those instruments. So you know, in choreographing it I learned that there’s nearly nothing there except the tiniest bit of musical material that is just unbelievably imaginatively structured. It’s really a few four-note themes. It’s a quintet so I called it “V” and also the dancers are arrayed in this sort of formation a lot. The piece itself is orchestrally expansive. It’s a big broad piece of music that is perfect sonata form and also there’s a double fugue and there’s gorgeous development and that’s why I selected it.

FR: Is it true this piece was set to commemorate 9-11?

MM: No it was not. It was dedicated as a gift to the citizens of NY. It was never intended to bare any relationship to 9-11. People needed a lift and so I thought I’d give them that by giving them this dance.

FR: Your choreographic process often includes working with musical scores by great composers from the past. How do you converse with composers/musicians that are deceased, such as Mozart?

MM: First of all, it’s much easier to work with dead composers then live ones. I do commission music from time to time. You know…I’m pretty smart. I take a great deal of time and effort to study a piece of music, to gleam from it what I think is not a secret but why the piece is successful to listen to. It’s usually structural and I decide that it might turn into a great dance. There’s great music that I wont choreograph to because it doesn’t need it or it’s too long winded and I don’t want to change it around. Or sometimes the music has been over used like the Nutcracker suite and that’s why I created the “Hard Nut” because people were not listening to the music anymore. I wanted to go back to Tchaikovsky’s metronome markings and use the whole piece, which nobody uses anymore.

FR:  It has been said that both traditional and non-dance audiences are drawn to your work. In your opinion, what is it about your dances that attract non-dance audiences?

MM: Well, it’s the same reason that some dance audiences aren’t wild about my work. They claim that anybody can do it. Well, you should see some people who are great dancers trying to do my work. They just can’t do it at all. Anyway, it’s seemingly natural spontaneous movement and relationship to music and relating to each other. My dancers aren’t competing with each other and they are not really showing off and of course it’s presentational. You know, it’s not like see what I can do and you can’t. I think people aren’t scared of it and because of the relationship with music people aren’t scared of music that in another context they might be scared of. People don’t panic at my shows and while I don’t expect everyone to like everything I don’t mind a little tension.

FR: In light of recent the economic situation, knowing that the Arts do in fact have a positive economic impact, (recently calculated at $166.2 billion a year), what would your personal message be to the council-people in cities like Dallas to ensure continued investment in the arts vs. drastic cuts?

MM: Well, there used to be a much bigger difference between the European and American system of arts funding. The States of course has this pathetic notion that arts are a luxury as opposed to a crucial necessity. Cities like Dallas are where performing arts happen. But also, what seems from the American point of view to be a ridiculous preponderance of funding by laws that allow for every theater in Germany to have an in-house ballet company or Dance Company and you know, s**t-loads of money. Just because you have lot of money and a theater doesn’t mean you will produce great work. Nor does the claw your way to the top, bootstrap American version work. It’s like, come hell or high water I’ve got to be a poet or with no help from anybody. I’m a poet and nobody cares. That’s just as bad, if not worse.

The NEA needs to give individual arts funding again like they used to and every one of the arts need to be represented in education from early on and all the way through school. Math and science are beautiful arts in their own light. Everyone should be taught to sing and dance. It’s life. As everybody knows from the euphemism of downsizing, that once you realize the work can be done by three people instead of five for the same amount of money but twice as much work and never getting a break, and it’s a nightmare for everybody. Then those two people you fired are never going to come back.


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  • Dear Ms. Reubin, I’m trying to contact you to review Ballet Concerto’s 2010 SUMMER DANCE CONCERT in Fort Worth. Could you please call the studio at 817-738-7915? Thanks!

  • Danna Reubin

    Hi Nancy,

    Thank you visiting FrontRow and for requesting we review the Ballet Concerto 2010 Summer Dance Concert. We are honored to see more and more dance patrons are turning to us for honest, field-educated, and interesting reviews of local dance companies. I will be in touch. -Danna Reubin

  • Thanks for a great interview! Will you be reviewing the performance?