Simple, Not Easy
Renowned choreographer Mark Morris returns to Seattle with two world premieres in a single season.
When Peter Boal left New York to become artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2005, he already had Mark Morris in mind. It only seemed right to have the world-famous Seattle native choreograph a piece for the adventuresome ballet company.
“So I asked him,” Boal tells me. “And he said no.”
At that point, PNB had never done a dance by Morris, and the choreographer wasn’t convinced it could.
“I’m very careful,” Morris says, perched at a small table in his hotel during a recent summertime visit to Seattle. “I don’t let people do my work unless I think they will do it very well. I don’t want to see a half-assed version of it.”
So Boal and the PNB company set out to prove they could handle Morris’ pioneering, musical choreography. In 2007, they delivered a mesmerizing performance of Pacific, a languid piece that draws on Pacific Islander and Indian culture. The next year they staged A Garden, an allegro work that features swift, formal footwork.
After those performances, Morris finally agreed to a commission for PNB. This November, “Kammermusik No. 3” will debut as part of the All Premiere program, which also includes work by three young, local choreographers. “Kammermusik No. 3” is double-cast with 24 dancers (half men, half women) and set to Paul Hindemith’s cello concerto, Music #3.
When we talked in late July, Morris had yet to choreograph any of the steps and had been in the studio for only a few sessions. But he’s notoriously private during creation. While visiting PNB this summer, he completely blocked out the studio windows with white butcher paper.
“I am very, very protective of my work,” he says.
Morris talks with his hands, punctuating his speech with the roll of a wrist or an arm spread wide. The 56-year-old choreographer is barefoot, swathed in a black sarong and grey T-shirt. His blue-grey eyes are piercing.
Morris has lived in New York for more than 30 years, but he was raised in Mount Baker, attended Franklin High School and launched his career in Seattle, creating 17 works here before heading East.
“Some of my company’s first appearances were at On the Boards when it was at its Washington Hall location,” Morris says. “It’s historical in that sense. I was living between here and New York at the time, so I’m related to On the Boards.”
On the Boards premiered more than 13 of Morris’ original works between 1978 and 1985. In October, OtB will present the Mark Morris Dance Group for the first time since then.
“They wanted to do something a little different, and of course we were thrilled,” OtB artistic director Lane Czaplinski says. “Mark has a brilliant mind.”
The OtB show, titled Back On the Boards, will feature 18 dancers and eight musicians in four dances: the world premiere of “A Wooden Tree” and three older works, two of which have never been seen in Seattle. “A Wooden Tree” is different and notable because Morris will use a recording instead of live music for the first time in his career.
Morris crosses his legs, ankle over knee, and frowns. Three months out, he says he has no idea what the choreography will look like. But he knows the music.
“I get a piece of music that I love and I study it and I listen to it and then I make up a dance in the studio and that’s it.”
I joke that his process sounds easy and he snaps his eyes into focus, setting his mouth in a hard line. “It’s difficult. It’s extremely difficult,” he says. “It’s very difficult to be a legitimate and honest artist at any level. I work with music and I make up a dance for people to perform. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It’s simple because it’s what I do and I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
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Morris was the youngest of three children. His mother fostered artistic freedom in him and his sisters, encouraging them to sing, play instruments and pursue theatrics. Long before Morris ever entered a studio, the living room was his stage. According to the biography by dance critic Joan Acocella, he showed prodigious talent at a young age, choreographing solos for himself to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. When his sister Marianne danced around the house in her pointe shoes, Mark fitted his feet with orange plastic cups and danced right along.
At the age of eight, Mark’s mother took him to see a performance by Jose Greco’s flamenco troupe. Impressed with the music and accompanying footwork, Morris decided to become a flamenco dancer. His mother signed him up for lessons with Seattle dance mistress Verla Flowers (whom he still recalls with fondness), and soon Morris developed an unmatched stamina and mastery of rhythm. Flowers took the budding protégé under her wing, and by the age of 14 he was choreographing for the dance school’s year-end recital.
“People don’t realize Mark’s early background was in folk dancing as well as modern,” Czaplinski says. “He brought pedestrian movement into his work without slowing it down to just walking. There is a very human element to it, but it is performed at such a high level.”
Although he claims to eschew a specific message in his pieces, Morris’ repeated use of physical symbols delivers an emotional impact. In his version of Dido and Aeneas, a dancer repeatedly holds both arms out, facing upwards, with all fingers splayed. The gesture is striking—a simple motion transformed into a deep idea about fate.
By the time Morris was 19, he’d given up his flamenco dreams and his beloved folk troupe, Koleda, had disbanded. Like many young artists before and after him, Morris decided to try his luck on the other coast.
The mid-’70s were an exciting time to be a dancer in New York. George Balanchine was choreographing at New York City Ballet and visionaries like Twyla Tharp and Robert Joffrey (another Seattleite) were creating less formal ballets, experimenting with popular music, loose movement and non-balletic dancers. There was freedom to push back at conventions—and money to do so. In 1978, the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Program distributed $7 million to American dance. It was fertile ground for a young virtuoso, and within this maelstrom of creativity and competition, Morris found his footing.
The Mark Morris Dance Group made its New York debut in 1980, but it was the 1984 concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and specifically Morris’ solo performance of O Rangasayee, that ignited a shift in modern dance. O Rangasayee drew on the work of two early pioneers of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, using their traditional “Oriental Solo” formula, which takes the perceived exoticism of Eastern countries and applies it to Western dance.
Morris adapted it to his own style—softened limbs, contortions of the body—without producing a caricature or stale copy. Wrapped in a loincloth, with his long curly locks flowing free, the 5’11” Morris performed with an astounding mix of grace and physicality. One New York Times critic wrote, “Now being talked of as the most solidly promising heir to the mantle of the modern dance greats, Mr. Morris is revealed in his dances and performing as an unassuming artist who luxuriates in music and the physicality of movement.”
In those early days, Morris broke expectation by dancing female parts, the most famous being both Dido and the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, a tale about love, lust, and good and evil. He often combined humor with beauty. In one of his most famous pieces, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, dancers run, hop, skip, pantomime fighting and lay down—transforming fully pedestrian movements into art with the rhythm and flow of their execution, in perfect synch with baroque music by Handel.
“Some of the greatest advancers of dance are the ones who have an appreciation for tradition,” says Boal. “They find ground within a deep appreciation for classic and contemporary dance. I think [Morris] has done it all with fresh paint. He’s not just propping up the same old ruins.”
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Morris’ musicality, craftsmanship and profound creativity make him one of the most prominent and influential choreographers of the past 50 years. His repertoire includes more than 140 dances created since 1973. Morris’ dances are big, the movements bold—high jumps, graceful arms and large ensemble phrases. It’s not uncommon for Morris to group more than a dozen dancers for synchronized jumping, arm swinging, arabesques and lunges.
Morris is not only interested in what the body looks like, but he’s interested in what the body can do. Many performers in his company are larger, taller or older than the average dancer. His work frequently blurs or ignores gender; men sometimes wear tutus or skirts and dance female parts. He embraces same-gender partnering. Two men will dance a pas de deux—not as a comment on gender roles or sexuality (Morris is gay, a fact he flaunted early in his career) but as a way to utilize specific dancers’ skills in a physical expression of music.
His varying choreography—dancers seamlessly swooping from stiff-angled movement into graceful balletic phrases—consistently challenges the language of modern dance. Whereas many choreographers start with an idea, theme or gesture, Morris always starts with a song.
“The only reason I make up dance is to get a piece of music across,” Morris says. “As far as a message or anything like that, I have zero interest in that. If there’s a narrative in the music, then it’s my responsibility to get that across. The dance is what you watch and the music is what you listen to. That’s the product. So as far as teaching somebody a lesson, that’s not my business.”
As he talks, Morris is darting around his hotel room looking for his cell phone: In his suitcase. Under the couch cushions. The fridge. No luck. He’s light on his feet, walking with his shoulders back, legs striding out from his sarong. He hums an unrecognizable little tune. I offer to call the phone, but he doesn’t know his number.
Morris is often labeled a genius, and I bring up the word.
“That’s a nice thing to say about someone,” he says with a smug little smile.
Shaking his head, he goes on in a deadpan tone.
“I don’t think dance is important,” he says. “I think it’s an option. It’s what I do, but that doesn’t make it important. I think the arts are important, dance being one of them that’s very interesting and humanizing. But as compared to science or famine or violence, dance is of no importance whatsoever. It’s something to do while you’re alive.
“But art is a necessity. If it weren’t for that there would be no reason for civilization. There wouldn’t be a civilization.”
Back On the Boards runs Oct. 4–6 at On the Boards. All Premiere runs Nov. 2–11 at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Pictured above: The Mark Morris Dance Group performs "Behemoth," a work that premiered in Brussels in 1990. Photo by Gene Schiavone.