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Mark Morris, the prolific choreographer, is still creating new dances after over fifty years of choreographing. His knowledge of and commitment to the music he uses for his dances is legendary, and his dance company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, famously only performs with live music from his Music Ensemble. His unique movement style, musicality, and wittiness all contribute to his continued success as a choreographer. Mr. Morris spoke with Dance ICONS’ Charles Scheland about how he makes dances and the scope of his artistic interests.
ICONS: What is the difference for you between choreographing solos for yourself versus choreographing for your dance group?
Mark Morris: I don’t choreograph solos for myself because I don’t perform anymore. The difference between something and something else isn’t explicable by what is solo and what is not solo. I make up dances. I always made up the solos that I did on somebody else and then learned them. I make up what other people do on them and on me.
The idea of it being a different method or process doesn’t translate well to how I think about what I do. I make up a dance for some people. I start a dance with a group of people and don’t know what it will be. It may be a solo; I might throw it out. I may use it later on. After 50 years of choreographing, I don’t observe my process. There’s no reason to: I do whatever I need for any dance I’m making up.
ICONS: You are a specialist in Eastern European folkloric dances. Are you interested in choreographically exploring the dances of other cultures?
MM: That’s all I’ve done my whole life. I’m not a folk dancer; that was fifty years ago. Of course, that’s part of my interests and training. I travel, I watch dances, I learn about things, but it’s not just fuel for me to make up dances with. It’s because it’s what I’m interested in. Though I’m far more interested in music than I am in dancing. I feel like it’s not just a broader spectrum, which it is; there’s a greater public that’s drawn to music and, thereby, to dancing. As far as a worldwide industry goes, music is gigantic, and dance is minute.
ICONS: Why do you find folkloric dances particularly attractive?
MM: It’s what people do. It’s not presentational, but theater dancing is. That’s why I like it [folk dance]; it’s just dancing and singing. I’m interested in music, cuisine, theater, style, and craft in places other than where I live. I like variety, and I like surprises.
ICONS: You always start with the musical score for each new dance, correct?
MM: I work from music, always. I’m interested in music; that’s why I’m a choreographer. I start with music, and then I make up a dance. That’s what I’m doing right now; I’m starting a new piece. I’m studying the music because it’s being arranged as I’m working on it. I work only with live music, in the studio, and all performances. I don’t use any recorded music unless that’s how it was composed and intended to be.
ICONS: How do you find the music that interests you so much that you want to make a dance?
MM: There’s music I like. There’s music I hate. It has kept my interest through many hundreds of thousands of experiences of it. I try to surprise myself. I’ve said this so many times that it’s a cliche from me, but I try not to make up the same dance twice. If I don’t want to hear the music a bunch of times, why bother? Occasionally, I choreograph music that’s way too familiar because I want to clean up its reputation, like my Nutcracker, The Hard Nut. I did that because I don’t like the way the music is presented. I did it the way Tchaikovsky did it with his tempi and his sequences in the full length. That’s the score, and then make up a dance to it.
It’s also practical in that we tour a lot. I very judiciously and rarely use work that is to a giant orchestra. I work in opera a lot, but that’s another story. As far as the repertory in my company leans toward chamber music because it has fewer musicians, and I will not use a recording. My music ensemble, the MMDG Music Ensemble, is a roster of great musicians. And when we need to, we can gather a full orchestra to play The Hard Nut, but it’s from my own ensemble.
I will not do a piece for a woodwind quintet if the stage can’t hold it and we can’t pay everyone. Touring is already expensive and complicated, and once you add musicians, which is, of course, the only way I do it, that’s more people. Our chamber shows, in general, are three to seven musicians. The other projects are bigger: operas and ballet company projects.
ICONS: Have you considered choreographing to silence?
MM: I have done so. There is one piece in my company’s repertory that has no sound. It was many years ago, a piece called Behemoth. That’s [choreography without music] not very interesting to me. I did it to see if I could. I made a giant forty-five-minute piece; that’s why it’s called Behemoth. I did it in Brussels originally, around 30 years ago. There are people whose work I love that are not attached to music. Merce [Cunningham], Lucinda [Childs], and Trisha [Brown], people of my generation and older who could dance without music. Hooray if you can pull that off, but it’s not what I’m interested in.
Of course, one of the most important aspects of music is silence, so it’s always there. I work with music on purpose. It’s what I like. When I see dancing, I want there to be music with it. And it already makes a sound. Footsteps make sound, so there you go; you can’t escape it.
ICONS: Is there artistic subject matter for you that you would consider choreographically off-limits?
MM: No. There shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean that’s what I want to do. It means I believe in a very broad idea of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. I might find something repulsive or odious or boring, but that doesn’t mean that it’s to be forbidden. I’m against that. A choreographer should be able to create anything, then people watch it or not.
I go for whatever I want. I don’t have a particular response in mind that I demand from audiences. The audiences don’t even have to stay for the whole thing if they don’t want to. I hope what I do is interesting and even entertaining. I don’t make a horror show unless I want to make a horror show, in which case it better be a good one.
ICONS: Is there artistic subject matter that you find is recurring in your work?
MM: Well, sure, that’s because everybody has a limited imagination. That’s called style. I did a wonderful Romeo and Juliet, and there was some review that said, “there were too many arabesques in it.” Well, duh, it was a ballet. Is there too much running in the Olympics?” I want my work to have a logical structure; then, I would cite it as classical. I want something that makes its own sense. Of course, I favor certain things.
ICONS: How do you keep the repertory fresh for new audiences and for audiences who have seen the work before?
MM: The repertory that I keep active from the past, I adapt that to the dancers I have at any given moment. I have some big audience favorites that aren’t necessarily mine because I’ve been watching them for such a long time. There are a couple of dances that people love and the dancers love, but that doesn’t mean I want to rehearse it or hear the music or watch it. But that also doesn’t mean that they aren’t popular and important to keep doing.
ICONS: Your company is called the Mark Morris Dance Group, not a company; what does that choice in words mean to you?
MM: People still get it wrong; it’s unbelievable. It’s a company, of course; it’s a company. In the period that I started this, in my case it was the 80s, everybody was calling their companies: somebody and friends, so I wanted something different. It’s certainly not a communal situation. I run it. There were famous groups: Patty Smith’s group, who is my generation, the great singer-songwriter Patty Smith, and The Wooster Group, which is the greatest theater company in the United States, based here in New York City. Group implies less formality than a company, but now I have this giant industry. Maybe it should be Mark Morris Industries.
ICONS: What is the most challenging part for you of creating a new dance?
MM: Stating a dance is easy; it is finishing it that is hard. When I work on dance, I just start. I have been studying the music, but I do not have much planned in advance. Lately, I have been working with smaller groups, 4 or 5 people, which is less pressure from people scrutinizing what I am doing.
Of course, I’m working from musical structure, harmonic changes, the text, whatever’s humanly possible, and whatever I didn’t do in the last piece. And then I try stuff. That part is easy. It’s the end that’s hard, as I call it, the pinching off at the end. Is it done? Is it ready? And the answer is, it’s opening night, so it is ready, whether it is or not. I always finish on time, and I get what I want, partly because my dancers are brilliant and I work fast.
ICONS: Can you tell us about this new work you’re working on?
MM: Yes, it’s fully announced and happening. It will premiere in October in Santa Monica at BroadStage. It’s called The Look of Love, set to music by the great American composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, being arranged by Ethan Iverson, with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, for 10 dancers. The music has a lead female singer, two background singers, a jazz rhythm trio (piano, drums, bass), and a trumpet. It’s a whole evening thing. It’s called The Look of Love because that’s one of the songs. I just started that a few months ago, but I’m only really getting going now. I do have a lot done, but there’s still a lot to be done.
ICONS: What’s keeping you interested in the piece?
MM: The fact that it’s opening in October and has to be done. It’s my job. I like the music, but I’m not intentionally doing a 60s/70s lookback. I did that piece with music based on the Beatles [Pepperland] they’re only related in that the music is from that same period. It just turned out that way. I’m interested because I was interested from the beginning, and I have to keep interested. Some days I have to pretend, but it’s all part of working. It’s interesting because it changes all the time, I have more people coming in, and it’s starting to form itself. I can’t determine in advance what effect it will have. It’ll be good, not too long, entertaining, and gorgeous. That’s what I know. I can’t say if it’s for everyone because there’s no way to do that, and nothing is.
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MORE INFORMATION AND BIOGRAPHY OF MARK MORRIS:
Mark Morris, “the most successful and influential choreographer alive, and indisputably the most musical.” (New York Times), founded the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) in 1980. His work is acclaimed for its ingenuity, musicality, wit, and humanity. In addition to creating over 150 works for MMDG, he conducts orchestras, directs opera, and choreographs for ballet companies worldwide. Live music and community engagement are vital components of the Dance Group. It has toured with its own musicians, the MMDG Music Ensemble, since 1996. The Mark Morris Dance Center, opened in 2001, provides a home for the dance group, subsidized rehearsal space for dance artists, free programs for the community, and dance classes for people of all ages, with and without disabilities. Morris’s memoir, Out Loud, co-written with Wesley Stace, was published in paperback by Penguin Press in October 2021. Website: https://markmorrisdancegroup.org/the-dance-group/mark-morris/
The Look of Love, choreography by Mark Morris:
Pepperland, choreography by Mark Morris:
Mark Morris speaking about Pepperland:
Photography © Beowulf Sheehan, photo portrait of Mark Morris
Photography © Jim Coleman, Grand Duo, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Christopher Duggan, Dancing Honeymoon, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Richard Termine, Sport, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Hilary Schwab, Pacific, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Tim Rummelhoff, Dido and Aeneas, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Mat Hayward, The Seattle, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Javier del Real, La Allegro…, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Newsletter cover images:
Photography © Kenneth Friedman, Mozart Dances, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Photography © Julieta Cervantes, The Hard Nut, choreography by Mark Morris, with performance by MMDG
Interviewer: Charles Scheland
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., October 2022 © All rights reserved.