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Mark Morris - More Resources

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Mark Morris (1956- )

By Elizabeth Zimmer

In 1981, when he started showing work in New York City, choreographer Mark Morris was widely regarded as the enfant terrible of American contemporary dance.  Thirty years later he had morphed into a paterfamilias. He’s one of very few American dance artists to command his own building, a custom-designed structure in downtown Brooklyn that opened in 2001 and now shelters rehearsals, performances, classes, and a range of services like physical therapy to make his dancers’ lives more comfortable–and to enrich the diverse surrounding community. His 18-member troupe, the Mark Morris Dance Group, tours widely, demanding live music wherever it appears.

Many dance fans initially called Morris a successor to George Balanchine, who died just as Morris was beginning to show his work in New York. But though his professional training and early performance career were heavily balletic, and his understanding of music deep, his instincts and inspiration were firmly in the lineage of modern dance. His early training, in his hometown of Seattle, Washington, included flamenco, ballet, and Balkan folk dances; by the time he was a teenager he was being paid to teach at the school, run by Verla Flowers, where he began his studies with Spanish dance at the age of nine.

The son of a high school English teacher (who died of a heart attack when Morris was 16) and a stay-at-home mother who made herself available to him as chauffeur and general support staff, Morris grew up in an environment that encouraged creative exploration.  In 1970 he joined the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble, a folk dance collective that cemented for him the idea of a dance company as a community of friends. Graduating from high school at 16, he skipped college, already sure of his direction as a professional dancer and choreographer; he’d been making dances since he was 14.

A trip to Spain, where he hoped to work as a flamenco dancer, was aborted when he realized how inhospitable the region was to his homosexuality, a characteristic he has never been shy about discussing. He subsequently retrained rigorously as a ballet dancer, and after moving to New York in 1974, performed with the ensembles of Eliot Feld, Lar Lubovitch, Laura Dean, and Hannah Kahn, but he grew impatient with the necessity always to partner women. Eager to make his own work, he left each of these troupes after a season or two. He began showing his own pieces in small theaters like Dance Theater Workshop, marshaling performers who, in many cases, were friends from his Seattle childhood.

His gifts were recognized early by critics like The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce, and by experimental theater director Peter Sellars, who recommended Morris to Gerard Mortier, then the director of the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, after Maurice Béjart resigned. Practically overnight the young choreographer, only 32 at the time, swapped his itinerant life as a freelance dance artist for the job of Director of Dance at Mortier’s theater, commanding the resources of a great European opera house, including an orchestra and chorus, a staffed costume and scene shop, offices, and support, including health coverage, for a much larger complement of dancers.

Life in Brussels proved a mixed blessing: his dancers were homesick, the populace resented him, and the press could be brutal. But he was able, in the course of his three-year contract, to produce masterworks like L’Allegro, Dido and Aeneas, and The Hard Nut. The latter, which Joan Acocella has declared the most autobiographical piece he ever made, has become a Christmas classic, an antidote to the saccharine versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker available nationwide.

Morris’s brilliant accomplishment was to take the naturalistic, weighty style of choreographers like Doris Humphrey and the flashy, ethnic-inflected strategies of Ruth St. Denis, and leaven them with the un-corseted body image of Isadora Duncan. “Big bottoms, large breasts—okay with me,” he once observed; his multi-racial dancers look like ordinary people, often a few pounds heavier than your average near-anorexic bun-head. 

Joan Acocella’s terrific biography of Morris, written when the choreographer was only 33 years old, documents his childhood and the first 15 years of his professional career. Also available is a coffee-table-size compendium, Mark Morris’ l’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, edited by Jeffrey Escoffier and Matthew Lore; the book, heavy with photographs and including essays by Acocella, Wendy Lesser, and Alastair Macaulay, appeared during the 20th-anniversary celebrations of Morris’s company, in 2001. It celebrates the first major piece Morris made while in residence in Brussels, a full-evening dance to Handel, derived from John Milton’s famous 17th-century poem and influenced by the watercolors of William Blake.

While still in Brussels, Morris in 1990 founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov, touring internationally and filling theaters with fans eager to see the Russian dancer perform. Many of these fans were quite bewildered by the repertory they encountered, most of it modern and post-modern dance ranging from solos to group works by the likes of Meg Stuart, an experimental American now based in Berlin. The project, which folded in 2002, employed a number of excellent, mature dancers fluent in both ballet and modern; it kept Morris’s reputation alive in the U.S. while he was working in Brussels.

In 1991 he received a MacArthur “genius” award, which smoothed the transition back to the United States. Since returning from Brussels he has made ballets, or set existing works, on companies including the San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, the New Zealand Ballet, Houston Ballet, the English National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet.   He has also choreographed or directed operas (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, La Nozze di Figaro, Sylvia, Four Saints in Three Acts, Orfeo ed Euridice). He has made distinguished collaborations with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Having just completed his 30th-anniversary season in 2011, Morris is surviving the economic downturn with regular bookings across the country, especially at UC Berkeley and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as seasons of new works in the 139-seat studio theater at the top of his 31,000-square-foot Brooklyn headquarters. Former company members offer movement classes for children, the elderly, and adults living with Parkinson’s disease. Many former dancers, now teaching at universities, feed candidates to the Mark Morris Dance Group, young performers already familiar with Morris’s repertory and style.  No specific “Mark Morris technique” has emerged; his dancers study ballet, and much of the choreography has roots in the folk-dance tropes he learned as a child in Seattle.

“I want my work to be performed humanely and gently, with some nuance,” he told an audience in Boston in 2010.1 Acocella posited that Morris is deeply engaged with vocal music because “he likes the stories.” By returning to the values that formed American modern dance, and fusing them with a fluent musicality, Morris has transcended genre and found both popular and critical success.


NOTES:

1. MM in conversation at Boston University in 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v =KH-6O1Bgvu4


Elizabeth Zimmer writes for Ballet Review, Dance Magazine, Metro, and other publications. She edited the dance section of The Village Voice (1992-2006) and reviewed ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer (1997-2005). She has covered dance in cities across North America, and taught writing and dance history at several universities.  She edited Body Against Body: The Dance and other Collaborations of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane (Station Hill Press, 1989) and Envisioning Dance for Film and Video (Routledge, 2002), and developed a dance history curriculum for urban schools.Her one-woman show, North Wing, played off-off-Broadway. She has studied many forms of dance.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Acocella, Joan. Mark Morris. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.

Escoffier, Jeffrey and Matthew Lore, eds, Mark Morris’ l’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato. New York: Marlowe & Company, 2001.

Online Resources

Mark Morris Dance Group website. Includes archived press, repertory and performance lists, media, and information on the company, the dance center and the school: http://markmorrisdancegroup.org/

Moving Image

Dido & Aeneas. Dir. by Barbara Willis Sweete. DVD. Rhombus Media, 1995.

Falling Down Stairs. Dir. Barbara Willis Sweete. DVD. 1998.

The Hard Nut. PBS/Channel Thirteen, 1992.