Mark Morris in Conversation with Barbara Lane
by Toba Singer
September 26, 2006 -- Kanbar Auditorium, San Francisco
As Barbara Lane hectored the audience to turn off their cell phones, a forearm and hand modeling that gadget slowly crept out from behind the curtain, upstaging and substantially undercutting the authority Lane was conscientiously working to instill. The hand and, presumably, the phone, belonged to the evening’s guest speaker, Mark Morris. The celebrated choreographer and infant terrible came wrapped in a toga-draped swath of what looked like unbleached muslin, worn over a pair of beige knickers. It’s hard to say with any certainty what-all else lived under the muslin-like wrap, but one thing is for sure, the swaddling clothes utterly failed to restrain their wearer.
Morris’ guest engagements occur in tandem with the Mark Morris Dance Company’s 25th Anniversary, its founder’s 50th birthday, and the opening of the company’s opera ballet, “King Arthur,” at Zellerbach Auditorium in early October.
Morris and Lane were seated at a small table that supported a bottle of wine. Morris helped himself to the wine as he spoke. It would be dishonest to give the impression that the wine fueled his trademark wit cum devilry. If anything, it may have lulled or coaxed his demons into strategic retreat. When Lane introduced Morris by referring to the rave reviews “King Arthur” received from London critics, he corrected the record, saying, “It also got really s----y reviews in London.”
Asked how he goes about editing music, Morris explained that he basically cuts anything that he regards as unimportant. Doing so, he was able to shave four hours of Purcell’s incidental music down to a 90 minute pastiche. Admitting a personal attraction to audio and video, he nonetheless characterizes such things as TV, CDs and the Internet as “a lie.” He feels that our culture is drowning in technology, and expresses his preference for “living people doing things for other living people.” Proclaiming himself neither a Luddite nor a sentimentalist, he cops to having had a lifetime of thrilling, though misremembered, experiences and explains he has arrived at the conclusion that physics is just a bunch of “lies that we accept in order to pretend that we’re really here.”
Among the accomplishments Mark Morris Dance Company is celebrating is its fifth anniversary of the dance center Morris opened in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001. It boasts five studios and approximately 500 students, many of whom benefit from free programs offered there. Morris says that dancing in Brussels and other non-U.S. venues made him aware that it was possible to offer dancers a physical plant where, with government funding, one could have windows that open and showers. Besides Ballet and West African Dance, the facility offers Yoga, Pilates, and a program for those afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. There’s live musical accompaniment for classes, and space for “irritating parents;” and though the windows open, none are provided that permit the irritating parents or others the opportunity to observe class, as, according to Morris, “It’s a dance studio, not a petting zoo.”
Asked a number of innocuous questions more related to his celebrity than his art, the 50-year old choreographer answered Lane’s query about why he no longer dances by quoting Sophie Tucker: “20 goes into 80 more times than 80 goes into 20,” adding “When you start looking more like the scary priest than the altar boy, it’s time to stop.” Asked for a list of his favorite movies, he offered “Nashville,” “Greed,” “Martin,” “Cabin in the Sky,” and “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.”
Contentious, as an article of faith, he nonetheless supports San Francisco Ballet School’s controversial decision of several years back to reject an eight-year old girl because she was not thin, on the grounds that “men have to pick them up. They have to be a certain weight.” Morris lamented, a tad disingenuously, that “not everyone gets to do everything,” throwing his weight behind what he describes as the “orchidaceous nature” of the ballets blancs, a genre which he says “requires 32 perfectly matched swans.” He does concede that what to do with the one Black swan poses the kind of social/political question that ballet, victim of its own [racist]courtly conceits, has never forthrightly addressed. One might have expected an answer from someone with his sensibilities that recognized the reality that a young woman’s dance education does not exist solely to serve the lifting obligations of male dancers; that female dancers whose bodies don’t stack up can also become dancers in disciplines other than ballet; as well as ballet teachers, choreographers, and, um, dance writers.
He observes that much of contemporary dance reflects dance makers’ contentment to make work for those who agree with them. While possibly “ecologically correct,” this sectarian tendency is also, in his opinion, responsible for an entire oeuvre that nobody but the choreographer can be expected to understand. He says that improv looks “like teenagers all getting the same navel piercing to declare their independence from their parents, and what you end up with is something like Jonestown.” His preference is for integrity: “If you do something honestly, we will recognize it for what it is.”
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