Restless on his laurels
THE list of projects on Mark Morris’ bursting schedule as his company celebrates its 25th anniversary might sound exhausting. But for this ever-surprising, robustly creative choreographer, the frenzy of activity seems to inspire joy rather than fatigue.
The Mark Morris Dance Group’s official celebration of its milestone, in March at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, featured triumphant revivals of major works as well as his two newest dances, with hot-ticket studio performances of early solos, duets and trios as a bonus. That same month, the Boston Ballet offered the world premiere of his “Up and Down,” set to Glazunov’s Saxophone Quartet. The latest of Morris’ ventures into the world of opera, a radical rethinking of Henry Purcell’s 1691 “King Arthur,” opened at the English National Opera in late June.
Things will continue on a grand scale this week, when “Mozart Dances,” a three-part, full-evening program presented by Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, will receive its premiere Thursday at the New York State Theater. Even after that, Morris’ exemplary troupe of dancers will not rest on their laurels but instead head up to the venerable Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts’ Berkshires for a week of performances that, although not billed as a retrospective, will offer a panoply of smaller-scaled dances spanning all 25 years of the troupe’s existence, rounded out by “Gloria,” one of his earliest major works. And two days after that run ends, Morris will mark his 50th birthday.
Nothing official is on the schedule for that, perhaps because all the overlapping rehearsals and travel precluded any planning. Morris, sitting in his midtown Manhattan apartment on a recent day off from rehearsing the Mozart program, mentions one irreverent possibility: “I was thinking of holding a potlatch and giving away all of my possessions.”
One hopes not, as there are quite a few fascinating ones on view in the apartment, which features an entryway with bright red walls and a sitting area painted pale green. An eye-catching demon-bird from Bali hangs near the doorway; a life-sized rooster, which has no special provenance but appealed to Morris, rests behind where he sits. Many shelves, including one low to the floor, are filled with neatly arrayed miniatures and art pieces, and there are books and CDs in abundance. Near the window is a row of oddly shaped mugs. It all feels wonderfully busy yet artfully designed.
But there is also a settled-in sense of comfort -- dare one say domesticity? -- for this once shaggy-maned provocateur who seemed to cultivate a personal image of outrageousness, even as his early dances resonated with an earthy honesty that suggested a kinship with an earlier, more forthright era of modern dance.
The disdain and incomprehension with which certain European critics greeted his company’s three-year residency at Brussels’ Theatre de la Monnaie are now in the distant past. Also a fading memory are the itinerant years that followed their 1991 return, when they rehearsed in an endlessly shifting stream of inadequate rented studios. After a decade of that, the Mark Morris Dance Group was able to open its own permanent home base -- and school -- in Brooklyn, with many of the amenities that were at its disposal in Brussels.
A musical mind
MORRIS, whose hair is now neatly cut and who sports a graying goatee, has country music playing as he welcomes a visitor. He wears a pale green shirt and a floor-length sarong skirt and is in a merry, forthcoming mood. He’s spent the last three nights watching San Francisco Ballet -- which brought his 2004 production of “Sylvia” as the centerpiece of its Lincoln Center Festival season, a rare opportunity to perform in New York -- and has clearly had a grand time.
“I’m a little bit hoarse from screaming ‘Yay,’ ” he apologizes.
Never shy about expressing himself, Morris still blends strong opinions with childlike glee, but in contrast to his younger self, he no longer tosses out statements merely to shock or offend. He just calls things as he sees them, particularly when it comes to matters of taste and what he values in dance.
“I turn down many ‘Do you have a statement on this?’ requests,” he says. “I don’t say a lot of things, but if I do, it will only be what I feel is the truth.”
His perspective on the way the dance world operates is shaped by the fact that he and his troupe work with increasing frequency under the auspices of music organizations. They had to forgo their annual engagement at the Boston Symphony’s summer home in Tanglewood this year only because their schedule was just too crowded, and among the coming highlights on Morris’ itinerary will be his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will direct and choreograph Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” in a version that, he promises, “will be full of dancing.”
“At Tanglewood, I’m treated like an actual midcareer artist working in his field,” he notes, as opposed to “a clown at a children’s birthday party, which is what happens in a lot of places.” Always aware of, and engaged with, the performing arts scene beyond dance, he is more likely to be found at a performance by the Wooster Group, a veteran experimental theater troupe, or at the opera than attending work by the downtown dance scene’s latest sensation -- although he “can’t get enough of” Merce Cunningham’s dances.
Just as he’s gone on record praising San Francisco Ballet or will casually mention to an invited press audience at his studio how appalled he was by the way New York City Ballet danced a Balanchine classic at a recent performance, he also bluntly criticizes the way things have to be done a certain way in dance.
“In other forms -- opera or literature or visual arts -- that are taken more seriously than dancing, people want a new treatment of something, a different point of view. In dance, the culture of it is so decrepit and weird, and everything is ‘How dare they?’ ”
Morris’ devotion to musical values -- his deep study of the scores he uses, the breadth of styles and periods in which he finds inspiration -- in itself seems to have gone against the grain during the decades in which he has been choreographing, when made-to-order, by-the-yard sequences of electronic sounds have often been the scores of choice.
“I always wanted to use really good music, and I do whenever I can,” he says.
For the last 10 years, that music has been performed live by the MMDG Music Ensemble, an essential component of his company’s performances. At BAM last spring, that applied to 20th century scores by Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud as well as to songs by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Morris even made his conducting debut: He was in the pit to lead the singers and musicians in Vivaldi’s “Gloria” for the enduring work he choreographed in 1981.
“The way he approaches music is thrilling for me. Mark is actually a musician -- he reads music. He knows a score inside and out,” remarks Joe Bowie, who joined Morris’ troupe in 1989. “He always finds a way that makes the music easy to hear, to discover and understand.” Referring to recent works set to Bartok and Stravinsky, Bowie says, “Once you’ve danced them, you understand the music inside and out. It’s amazing.”
Top-drawer musicians embrace the opportunity to work with Morris, who has collaborated on several occasions with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and has formed long-standing connections with conductors and vocalists for his major works to Baroque scores, such as “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” (1988) and the 1989 “Dido and Aeneas,” both of which have become repertory staples.
His participation in the Mostly Mozart Festival, which began in 2002, is further evidence of the happy fit between his company and musical institutions.
“The dance audience is very petite, and a music audience is very grand. I love the overlap,” he says. “Musicians who come to my concerts like them better than dancers do, because they see it in another way.” So at music venues, “we’re welcome because it works out so wonderfully, with my dancers working with their musicians. I’m comfortable in that world.”
The new style
AFTER presenting a variety of his earlier works (including the expansive “L’Allegro”) for several seasons, Mostly Mozart commissioned Morris to shape a full evening to Mozart, as part of this year’s celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday as well as the festival’s 40th anniversary, and to use whatever compositions he wanted.
“I thought I would perhaps do three concertos for different solo instruments. Then I remembered having met Manny” -- pianist Emanuel Ax -- “and loving his work for a long time, and it turned into a huge piano program,” Morris explains. “It’s more Mozart piano music than you would normally hear in a concert.” There are two concertos -- Nos. 11, K. 413, and 27, K. 595 -- and the Sonata in D for two pianos, K. 448.
Still putting the finishing touches on the choreography, he describes the result with mischievous bluntness as “a very big evening-length show” and goes on to explain how he’s structured it.
“They’re incredibly great pieces, and they seem operatic to me. The centerpiece of the program is the slow movement of the sonata -- the middle of the nine sections. Structurally, dance-wise, the first piece is primarily for women, the second is primarily men, and the last one is everybody” -- the troupe’s eight men and eight women. He goes on to rave about his collaborators: British painter Howard Hodgkin, who is designing three sets, and longtime Morris associates Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and James Ingalls (lights).
Lauren Grant, a company member who has danced for Morris since 1996, feels that there is a thread uniting the three pieces but that it’s not overstated. “It’s bringing out a whole new style of step creation,” she says. “To me, it feels like a completely new direction -- the way the movement feels in my body. It has all the craft that he’s so good with. The way he crafts a dance is so intricate and surprising and perfect.”
For a while, Morris was rehearsing this major work and “King Arthur” simultaneously. At the time of the interview, he had recently returned from London, where his Purcell production, which stripped away the dramatic verse by John Dryden but left all the music, for seven solo singers and chorus, was praised by one critic as “witty, whimsical, mesmerizing and meltingly beautiful entertainment.” Another wrote, “No choreographer before Morris has engaged so profoundly with baroque opera, none has set it to dance to such ravishing effect.” The work’s U.S. premiere is scheduled for Sept. 30 to Oct. 7, when Cal Performances will present it at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
Twenty-five years ago, could Morris have envisioned that he would be creating in so many and such venerated settings? That he would not only have a full-time ensemble of 16 but that it would be among the few modern dance companies with its own building -- a spacious, well-appointed five-story structure across the street from BAM?
“I figured I would eventually be a successful choreographer, sure,” he says. “I always intended to make up dances to music. I sort of always have. But I could never have imagined the building or the scale of the work.”
Probably neither could the critics and audiences who caught on during small, pickup performances in the early ‘80s that something special was happening. The company has moved from one generation -- those who were Morris’ contemporaries -- to another, and his approach to movement has evolved to the degree that both Grant and Bowie refer to the “ancient style” in contrast to what his present-day works require.
In his early works, Morris often favored music visualization and what his biographer, Joan Acocella, described as “a blunt, vernacular look.” Now he tends to require greater technical refinement.
But a recurring term in Morris’ conversation is “show” -- he’s still about putting on a good show, one that meets his standards and that people will both enjoy and respect. For 2 1/2 decades, he has done that in spades, blending originality and insight and extending the horizons of dance with unflagging inspiration and occasional irreverence.
These days, he radiates not only exhilaration and engagement in his work but a genuine love for it.
“I’m doing exactly what I want,” he says. “I’m interested in keeping my company dancing gorgeously and doing the work that I like. I’m booked a few years in advance. It’s great. I’m not complaining.”