-- An Interview with Mark Morris
by Donald Hutera
October 21, 2001 - London
Mark Morris is still reeling after a three-week season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, held last November, that honoured the 20th anniversary of his eponymous Dance Group. He speaks of it with a typically pointed retrospective dramatic flair. "It was exhausting. Spectacular. It went great. There were thousands of spectators. It almost killed us. We had two days off, then we were on tour again.You rest when you can."
In Morris' case, there is no rest for the natural-born genius. His response, when I tell him that's what he was called in one British newspaper, is "Who said that? Me?!" Morris is joking, but he's serious to the extent that he reads everything written about him. No slight intended, but he has a very healthy ego. Risking understatement, he knows he's good and that he makes good work. That's his job. And it's a privilege and a pleasure.
Morris' spanking new $6.3 million company headquarters in Brooklyn is still under construction. But the offices have been open for a month and half, and at least one of the studios will be ready for June 11. There will be facilities for creating and presenting his own work, but the four-storey building will also function as school and dance community centre. Morris' comment about the whole milestone enterprise is an eloquently simple "Unbelievable!"
Our conversation is quick, low-key and rambling. Is he likely to be making dances till he drops? Essentially, yes. "I'll stop performing before I stop choreographing." Morris is the master of the practical quip. Beyond the new building, what are his current goals? "I don't have a big plan except everything that's planned for the next several years." Schedule permitting, he's likely to be teaching occasionally in the fall - open class, company class, maybe now and again a choreographic workshop. How does that function? "I give very direct, plain composition problems which people have to solve in a very short period of time. We look at it and say why things work or not. Or I'll give them a very simple pieces of music that everyone has to choreograph to - twenty minutes to make up a new dance. I don't know how to teach except by making it up on the day."
Morris likewise subscribes to no choreographic formula. "Doris Humphrey advised people to make up the ending of a dance first, so that you'd know where you're headed. Why bother? More and more I tend to work on a dance from beginning to end. What I finish one day decides what I'll do the next. I try to build in something that will automatically surprise me, but I don't know in what way. Like, I can't use any diagonals in this or that dance. It's setting up a system of the unpredictable."
There is no signature Morris style, Rather, his sensibility is wide-ranging and generous. "I like a lot of different stuff. Maybe that's a weakness. I'm versatile. It's great and horrible." When it comes to choosing repertory, he is as careful as you'd expect. He is also protective of his dances. "That's why I don't set many dances on other companies. I wanna know how it's gonna be." Although inundated with requests for new work, Morris usually declines. An exception was a little group in Ohio. "I like 'em so much. They knew I was a folk dancer [in younger days]. We had a big party and they asked, would I consider making up a dance for them? And they had the wherewithal to get a grant for it. It's the only dance I ever made up for a folk dance company."
San Francisco Ballet is another, sterling example of a troupe he trusts. They will be presenting two Morris pieces in London this August, the delightful "Sandpaper Ballet" and the new "A Garden." This brace of dances could be regarded as a warm-up for the Morris Group's Umbrella 2001 programme, and the tour that follows the dates at Sadler's Wells. It's a big tour, the biggest his company has had in the UK to date - eight cities, from Edinburgh to Woking. The dances he'll bring are rich and varied in tone and content. All of it will be accompanied by live music - not full orchestras, but a handful of musicians.
While Morris is looking forward to the tour - "It'll be fun" - there is one thing he will not do in advance. "Honey, trying to get me to describe a dance is just wasting your breath. I'll talk about my work, but I won't describe a dance. People can watch 'em. I don't have to spoon-feed." This isn't arrogance. He simply doesn't want his work to be pre-digested, a done-deal even before the curtain goes up. Where is the mystery, the sense of adventure, in that? With Mark Morris, discovery - and re-discovery - is a part of what makes the work of this natural-born genius such fun for us.
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP UK
Edited by Jeff