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Staging Marks Berman's New Career

Joanna Berman at Pacific Northwest Ballet

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Published December, 2008 -- Seattle

We met with stager Joanna Berman while she was in residence at Pacific Northwest Ballet to set Mark Morris’ “A Garden.”  Our conversation took place on a break between busy rehearsals and we spoke while the perennial strains of the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ wafted up from their largest rehearsal hall where a ballet mistress was putting dancing flora through their paces.

One of my goals was to try to get at the heart of what makes a Mark Morris piece a Mark Morris piece – what is its essence?

Here is the summary of that lively and delightful exchange.

First of all, please tell us a little but about your background – how you got started in ballet and your career highlights.

I started dancing at the age of four in a recreational program but went to Marin Ballet at 8 and stayed there until I was 17.  I credit Maria Vegh with my foundation, and certainly my technical foundation.  I then spent one year at the San Francisco Ballet School; they started using me in the Company. I received my apprenticeship in January 1984 and was promoted to full company member later that year.  I stayed until 2002.

I got to do the classics, such as the full-lengths plus Balanchine and Robbins, but my favorite thing was to work with choreographers on new works.  I first met Mark when he made his work, “Maelstrom” for us.  Paul Gibson [ed: one of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ballet masters] was also in the cast with me.  I find the process of creating new pieces really thrilling.  I found that I mostly had to find within myself how to get at what each one, such as Val Caniparoli, Mark or others wanted.

Tell us about the process of staging a piece.

I enjoy being a regisseur – I get to enjoy the best of all worlds in this role.  “A Garden” was first set on me, and the parts I did are in my body; I remember these this way – “muscle memory.”  The other parts I’ve learned through video – even watching it once with Mark –  and now have these “in my body” too.  I also wrote down everything that I learned from my study.  Demonstrating to the dancers what we want them to do really is the best way.  There is no better substitute.  This is the first time I’ve taught the ballet all the way through by myself, and it’s gone well.  I wasn’t sure how much time exactly it would take, as some parts are more time-intensive to teach than others, but by end of my first week here, I had completed all but two of the sections.

Mark’s own coaching is qualitative and this aspect is critical to pass along to the dancers.

In your view, what is at the essence of a Mark Morris piece?

[Smiles] Musicality must be a top priority.  His works make perfect sense when in the process of working as a dancer – visually, physically, and intellectually – you can see the layers of the orchestra right in front of you in the choreography.  Mark’s pieces are the most successful when stripped of performance affectations.  The work becomes more pure, grounded, clear, and relaxed – this is often not where ballet dancers want to go.  His work is rarely “presentational.”  It’s very human, and typically devoid of sentimentality.

For example, the pas de deux that’s in “A Garden” is about two people who are going through similar things but are not really connecting with each other through eye contact – each person is very self-contained, and when the pas repeats – “exactly” as Morris wants – it feels so powerful and creates its own exciting energy.

Speaking of “A Garden,” describe it to us a little.  What will viewers find?

The music is by Couperin and orchestrated by Richard Strauss.  There are simple costumes – academic looking – with no frills.  Its signature has a distinct baroque style and an understated elegance.  It’s for twelve dancers and is an ensemble piece, but everyone gets their moment.  There are eight movements, and only one is in unison.  It’s a mix of combinations – of fantastic patterns and mathematical equations.  The duet is to be performed as if improvised and there are moments of stillness.

I think readers would find the mechanics of exactly how you stage a work to be interesting.  What’s been your process?

I didn’t know any of the dancers, so I started by teaching them one of the unison movements to see how they’d respond.  Then I taught a contrasting, very different three-person movement.  I worked with Peter [Boal, PNB Artistic Director] on the casting.  It’s double and in some places, triple cast.  I had two weeks of rehearsal – not a lot of time, but got it done, as I mentioned earlier, more quickly than I had first thought.  What I thought would be the easiest movement to teach ended up being surprisingly difficult and time-consuming to teach, due to things like coming in on different counts or from different directions.

You had the chance to work directly with Mr. Morris.  What is his creative process like?

Mark is not too collaborative – his main source of inspiration is the music.  He’ll have a few things worked out, but not all of them.  Things do evolve organically.  I’ve found that dancers really need to pay attention – even when he’s not working with you, as you may find yourself suddenly being asked to do something that he had just been working on with someone else.

It’s a real mental exercise to work with him.  His company members are smart and funny.  Pay attention, work hard and it’s fulfilling.

Any valedictory comments or observations you’d like to share?

My husband and I have twin boys – ages 5 and a half – and I spend most of my time with them.  I do teach Company Class at San Francisco Ballet twice a week.  I limit my professional engagements but do hope to do more stagings of Mark’s work and also of Christopher Wheeldon’s work – it becomes a matter of balance.

My husband is a musician and he will be working with the San Francisco Symphony during my third and final week at PNB [including Opening Night], and I will be bringing the boys with me – to work but also to enjoy seeing the sights!

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