"
I didn't start as a ballet guy."

 

 

An Interview with Bruce Marks
Artistic Director Emeritus, Boston Ballet
August, 2002

By Toba Singer

 

 

Bruce Marks was in the Bay Area earlier this summer to advise the José Limón Foundation on the development of a dance-in-the-schools program similar to Boston Ballet's Spirit of Dance. That program flourished under Marks' stewardship when he was Artistic Director of Boston Ballet. I met Marks about a month earlier, while attending the Fort Worth/Dallas production of Romeo and Juliet. We had a brief discussion there about our common New York roots and shared loyalties to that city's High School of Performing Arts. Getting together for an interview a few weeks later seemed irresistible.

I was curious to know how it was that after having been regarded for decades as a “ballet guy” by dance audiences, Marks had turned his focus to modern dance. His response revealed how he, as a young male dancer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, absorbed the subtext of the dance world of New York City as a coefficient of his on-the-job training. “I didn't start as a 'ballet guy.' I started as a modern guy, not knowing, never having seen modern dance. I had never even seen a ballet performed when I entered the High School of Performing Arts, which taught us those two disciplines. I was 4'10" and they must have needed boys very badly because they took me. Edward Villella auditioned the same day, doing grand jetés, and looking quite phenomenal, and the first thing I saw was that I was going to be a modern dancer.

“I began performing immediately, after arriving at P.A., with Pearl Lang of the Martha Graham Company. She had just begun doing her own choreography. She was teaching at the school [Performing Arts] then, and sent a note saying 'Come to rehearsal.' She didn't ask; she just said, 'Come to this address.' People started arriving: Bertram Ross, Mary Hinkson, Matt Turney. They were the Graham Company, but I didn't know that. I didn't know what I was rehearsing for. I was being choreographed on, and I didn't even know what a modern dance company was! I performed that year for the first time at the 92nd Street Y, as Pearl's son in Ironic Rite, which became simply, Rites. I was praised as a 'big dramatic talent' by the New York Times. I continued dancing with Pearl until my entrance into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.”

Marks had a four-to-five year career in modern dance before being accepted at the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied ballet with Alfredo Corvino, Margaret Craske, and Antony Tudor. It was then that he joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. “That's where I began the transition that took many years before I was accepted as a ballet dancer and my career began at ABT. Up to that point, the entire New York press knew me as a modern dancer, and were not happy with me as a ballet dancer.” We recalled that in those days, there was a line of blood drawn between ballet and modern dance. We agreed that today, given the tendency toward more crossover works, that line of blood has morphed into the occasional line of type, more cold than hot. “You were not supposed to change sides,” Marks chuckled, “and certainly not from modern dance TO ballet. THAT was heresy.”

I asked Marks the question everyone hates to ask, yet wants the answer to: What special circumstances led Marks, as a boy, to take his first steps into the world of pre-professional and professional dance? “I started tap dancing lessons with my gym teacher. His name was Mr. Schachter, and he had a little studio above a store on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. My father was a truck driver, and was what was known in those days as 'a physical culturist.' He had taught me gymnastics, and how to tumble. Schachter noticed this in gym class. He said, 'You're so agile! Why don't you come to my dance school?' I asked 'How much?' He gave me a scholarship, and since the price was right, I started to study with him.”

Outstanding among the many accomplishments credited to Bruce Marks is the role he played in helping to shape Boston Ballet when he was its Artistic Director in the late 1980s to mid-1990s. When a close friend of mine, a most proper Bostonian and lifelong supporter of Boston Ballet, learned that I would be interviewing Marks, she said, “Ask Bruce Marks why he left Boston Ballet. It has never been the same since [his departure].” Knowing that many Boston balletomanes were puzzled by Marks' departure, I posed my friend's question.

Marks hesitated, and then spoke in a voice that had suddenly lost its jocularity. “Transitions are always hard. I may have made a mistake by announcing my departure two years before it happened. I made myself into a lame duck. Suddenly I found that a lot of people resented my leaving. The board said, 'You can't leave us!'” Then, to offer a moment of comic relief from the grim story he was about to relate, he joked, “We can leave you, but you can't leave us!”

Back in the serious mood, Marks observed, “People feel abandoned. Then they start asking, 'What did he really do here? Did he train the dancers? What's he really doing?' A leader sets the tone, and I was both Artistic Director and CEO. That sometimes happens in the Theater, where you have a producing director and an artistic director. Sometimes in regional companies, there is one person who does both things. But in ballet, there is almost never one person [doing both]. You can do it, but it is very hard.”

Wanting to move from the woes of the war-torn past into the company's future prospects, Marks shifted gears. “Boston Ballet will now conform to the traditional model. Mikko Nissinen will be its Artistic Director and Valerie Wilder will be Executive Director. While Mikko does not have much experience, Valerie, I can assure you, is one of the best executive directors in the world. She will be there to support him in areas he doesn't yet know about. He has a good classical background and enormous charm, and I'm encouraged by that.”

I asked about the morale of the company, and about the impact of the loss of Maina Gielgud before she had actually begun her tenure as successor to former Artistic Director, Anna Marie Holmes, and the concomitant rash of dancer firings-without-cause by the then-chairman of the board of directors. “What's the morale situation?” Marks said, repeating my question, as if he were probing a splinter with a hot needle. “I don't think it's very good – yet. It will take Mikko in residence for it to get good, and he won't be there for another month. In order to build morale, you have to be there. Valerie isn't there yet, either. So right now, it's a tabula rasa. Nobody is there. Jorden Morris [the ballet master who carried out the firings over the past two years, and recently left] is out, and the company has undergone Marks-to-Holmes-to-Gielgud-to-Nissenen in four years! That's a LOT of insecurity.“

Marks added that John Humphreys, who had been board chairman during Marks' tenure as A.D. and resigned, will once again assume those responsibilities. “He's a pretty smart guy,” Marks said of Humphreys, “and this is his third stint. He left during the time I was there, and has come back on what I think is a very high note.” Reflecting again upon the recent history of Boston Ballet, Marks said, “Some bad personnel decisions were made. Mr. [Jeffrey] Babcock may have been an executive suitable in his position as Dean of Music at Boston University. It's clear that he had never run a ballet company, and probably never will again. We need to point out that after four years, of the existing senior and middle management of the company, both administrative and artistic, only one person remains: Jonathan McPhee. (McPhee is the orchestra conductor to whom the repertoire was given when Ms. Gielgud resigned. While not having had a dance career, McPhee was the only remaining figure with sufficient moral authority to evince needed confidence from dancers, audiences, and donors.)

“Imagine, there is nobody left in marketing or development as we go into the coming season – not even a ballet master! No one. To dismantle thirteen years of work in three – that's hard to do. It must have taken a lot of work to discourage a bunch of dancers who weren't doing that badly – by firing them,” said Marks with unambiguous rancor. Pausing to collect his thoughts once again, Marks closed this subject on an upbeat note: “My hopes rest with Valerie. She can guide, and lead, and make the right decisions.”

I asked Marks what lessons could be learned from Boston Ballet's experience over the past three years. “What's happened in America is truly that boards are making the decisions, hiring on 'hired hands' to do the work, as opposed to when companies were started with the vision of an artist. Nowadays, these boards try to find someone to match what they want, and that works less well than allowing people to just naturally start a ballet company – those who need to, and those who have a vision. Imagine telling Eliot Feld what to put on the stage! National repertory companies that dictate what we can and cannot have, tend to have executive directors who work FOR the board. The reason it worked [better] at Boston Ballet when I got there is that the company had been so beaten up in the press for the Violette Verdy departure. 'Do WHATEVER you want' is pretty much what they told me. I never relinquished that [carte blanche].

“There were two times when they asked me to relinquish my power. I can't remember the details. The executive director came to me and said, 'We're thinking of doing such and such and so and so to form a compensation team for senior management, and we'll determine the salaries.' I told them 'You do that, but I won't be here.' He who determines the salary is called 'the boss.' On another occasion, the executive director came to me and asked me to do something that, again, I cannot recall. I said, 'No.' He said, 'What do you mean you're not going to do it? I told you to do it. You work for me, and the board. We hired you!' 'Yes, you hired me,' I told him. 'You hire and fire, but you are not Boston Ballet, and I am not Boston Ballet, and that's who I work for. Boston Ballet is the dancers, and choreographers, and so forth. And that's what I do: I do what's best for Boston Ballet.' His response at the time was: 'You're absolutely right!' You can't 'want' the 'job' of Artistic Director and do it right, because you'll do the bidding of the board; you'll do whatever they say, and you'll follow the path of least resistance.”


"I would go back to having people have épaulement...
it is that kinesthetic tension that people feel out front."


Marks said that when he began at Boston Ballet, he did things that boards would more than likely veto today: “We did a festival of dance called On the Edge. It included three weeks of three different programs of contemporary choreography, where I brought in tons of other people.” Included, most notably, were Bill T. Jones and Twyla Tharp. “You can't want 'the job' so much that you'll cave in at the first opportunity. I warned Mikko, 'You'll never be as powerful in this company as you are today. When you give up that power to the board and the marketing department, the likelihood is you'll never get it back.' That's why the most important work today is going to come out of companies that are founded by a visionary person where you can't imagine having the company without the founder, and the repertory companies are going to become these museums of better or worse work; some good, some not so good. But as to having an originally creative institution, I don't know whether these national companies are going to be that, or remain that. They're only as strong as the person who heads them.”

At the time of our interview, the trial involving Ron Protas' exclusive claim to the performance of Martha Graham works had just come to a close in New York. I asked Marks what he thought the case signified. “It is shocking that Protas would have the power to kill this work forever, such that it might never be performed again. In the end, it doesn't matter who has the rights, if all the work dies, if the tradition and the connection to Martha is cut forever. So that if work that has been done for thirty or forty years exists only in notation or on film, and then Ron dies, and leaves it to someone, and the question comes up of doing it again: 'Can we? Will we?' It can only continue if it can continue to be reanimated.

“Toni [Lander] and I recreated the 1855 Bournonville ballet, Abdallah. It was performed before Bournonville left Vienna, during the Lucille Grahn period. All the variations end with pauses, and Bournonville was exiled for speaking in objection (while the King was in the audience) to the clapping, the screaming, and the commotion at the ends of variations. He was to have been jailed, but the sculptor, Torvaldson, intervened on his behalf, and begged that he not be sent to prison. So, instead he took a little sabbatical in Italy. Bournonville wrote Abdallah down because he was going to try to resell it.

“When I was at Royal Danish Ballet, I had a friend working at Sotheby's, and a scenario, the story of a ballet called Abdallah was found. We found it at Sotheby's with the help of a man named Fibica Canada, and paid $150 for it. I joked that some day Toni and I would stage it. Toni read the scenario to me, which was in French, and it was the Aladdin's Lamp story, only about a candlestick. I said something like, 'Those steps don't exist,' and was told 'Oh, but they DO,' by a man from the Royal [Danish] Ballet. I decided that I was going to find money to stage this production. Do you remember during the Lockheed scandal a few years ago that there was a big arms dealer named Kashoggi? He agreed to pay for it. Toni and I found the money! She got the score, asked Flemming Flindt to work on it, and it happened that at the time there was big interest in Bournonville in Chicago, where they were hosting an anniversary season. They wanted our Aladdin's Lamp ripoff!

“So we did it. It wasn't the way Bournonville did it; we incorporated the same action, but not in 1855 time. In 1855, you'd see Napoli and a play in the same sitting. You'd enter the theater at 6:30 and leave at 11. You'd gossip, eat something; not sit there like we do today in hushed silence. You can't present Swan Lake AND a play today. We've cut tons out of Swan Lake. It's worthwhile doing the work if it's true to the spirit of its original choreography, even if it's not performed to the letter of it. You can't have six minutes of a character dressing, when people can strip all their clothes off in twenty seconds on TV. It's got to be a living thing, not a museum [piece], but a living thing.”

Given Marks' experience with recreating Abdallah, I asked him about the mechanics of dance preservation, and asked him to compare dance notation and video. “I think that a combination of the two are necessary. Dance notation has an exactitude that extends beyond the human eye. Everyone is forced to see exactly the same thing. It's kind of like what the cops claimed in the Rodney King beating. Maybe if you're a racist, you somehow believe that what you see is the guy on the ground attacking the seven people who are beating him with clubs. We can both look at the same tape and see a different scenario, but you can't look at a manuscript and say that the word 'the' isn't the word 'the.' That's the advantage of dance notation over video.

“We are passing from one kind of era to another, and a lot of things are being thrown aside as part of the technology revolution. Side by side with that, there is the decline and fall of an empire. The United States has been leading the decline of the culture.” Taking sports as an example, Marks notes that “people cannot see the correlation between the need to see San Jose beat the Giants, or beat the Somebodys, the Anybodys ('Get 'em! Kill 'em!') and not also see the more serious and dangerous rivalries that threaten the culture. We spend more time on that sort of thing. We are becoming more like the Romans in their period of decline. The general populace in Rome spent no time on cultural pursuits. When I visited the Soviet Union when it was still the Soviet Union, children were being taken to the museums, and there was nothing on TV there but talking heads.”

While we were on the subject of the Soviet Union, I asked Bruce Marks what would happen if there were a revolution tomorrow in the United States, and he was elected to oversee all ballet training, and could set up a national curriculum. He leapt from his seat at my kitchen table, assumed fourth position in croissé with his back toward my refrigerator. He then proceeded to show me exactly what he'd do. “I would go back to having people have épaulement. It has been said [by a well-known dance personnage] that I don't respect Balanchine enough. I would have every company present Balanchine, but I'd also have them PUT BACK what Balanchine learned. I'd ask every student, 'What is croissé?' and [not let class continue] until the students said, 'Croissé is a position of the body.' I'd say 'You mean the head, too?' It used to be a crossed position, arm not over head, but arm open. It was here,” he fairly bellows, with his arm held high, and slightly open to the rear of his head. “It was NOT here,” he says, more hushed, arm held directly over head. He smiles broadly, seeing that he has an appreciative, if miniscule audience.

“When I was attacked for being anti-Balanchine, I said, 'You know, sometimes less really IS less and in this case, less IS less. It's hard to coordinate tendu front with a head movement, and you don't always HAVE to dance that way, but you should be ABLE to. I was able to do that, and then go to Denmark and dance Bournonville. Isn't it more interesting to see a little turn and twist? Martha [Graham] was turning and twisting and we [ballet and modern dancers] were hating each other. Modern had a spiral feeling. Ballet dancers were doing that, and modern dancers weren't doing flat movement, so we both had a lot more going around the spine. And it is that kinesthetic tension that people feel out front. So, I try to teach épaulement.”

I asked Marks about his thoughts about curriculum in general. “I might want to try something that Marcia Dale Weary does better than anyone. I'd give the students a Bournonville warm-up, and then let them sit at the back and learn choreography.” Referring to the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (del Wary's school), Marks said, “They're amazing, and they all can dance! They don't do movement divorced from dancing. A great way to learn how to dance is to do ballets, to do what it is you are going to do on the stage.

“When there was something called the Carlisle Project, Barbara Weissberg had a choreographic teaching program, and the CPYB people were doing all kinds of movement, and when they got to your company, they could do anything. You didn't have to begin to teach them to dance. Most kids now just know how to do ballet class plus eight pirouettes, and split jumps with legs over ears. At P.A., we had acting training, and improv with Actors Studio-trained teachers. I became known as an acting dancer. I was ABT's chief murderer and rapist. I was good at it. I could dance The Butler in Miss Julie, and get really angry. I could kill Desdemona for Mr. Limón. If dance isn't about that, it's not necessary. I was so excited about doing the whole spectrum. Given my physical limitations, I was so very happy when I had a lot of acting to do.”

My last question was for fun, intended to give us a little playtime. I asked Bruce Marks who his first picks would be in casting the classics. Here's what he said – Giselle: Gallina Ulanova or Carla Fracci; Siegfried: Bruce Marks; Les Sylphides: Ivan Nagy; Witch in La Sylphide: Sorella Englund; Etudes: Toni Lander; Afternoon of the Faun (Robbins): Tanaquil LeClerq (whom Marks described flatteringly as “not a human being”); any Bournonville male role: Henning Kronstam (whom he described as “one of the greatest acting dancers I've seen.” Marks said that Kronstadt “could be observed dancing five different characters each night, without the most astute observer recognizing that each was danced by Kronstadt.”); Black Swan: Terakova or Plisetskaya.

I asked Marks what his personal agenda is for the immediate future. “I want to finish my book. I'm afraid of it, but I want to get it done. Writing about the present, meaning the last twenty years, is very hard. I want to write like Proust, and it keeps coming out like Woody Allen.”

 

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Edited by Malcolm Tay


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