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For Mark Morris, There is No Dance Without Live Music

by Danielle Georgiou 16 Jun 2010 10:50 AM

The choreographer talks about why he’s bucking the trend of dance companies resorting to canned music ahead of his company’s performances Friday and Saturday at the Winspear Opera House.


Mark Morris Dance Company members perform V.

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is a dance lecturer at the University of Texas Arlington. She also serves as assistant director of  UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble.

Friday, June 11, 2010, 10:55 a.m.

I dial choreographer Mark Morris at his home in New York and listen to the phone ring.

“You’re early.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok. I like that.”

Mark Morris is an American dancer, choreographer and director whose work has defined this generation’s idea of dance. His work combines immaculate craftsmanship, humor, tragedy and a unique understanding of music.

On Friday and Saturday, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) will be perform at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas to close out TITAS’ 2009-2010 season. The company will be presenting two of Morris’ newest works, Visitation and Empire Garden (2009), as well as his popular V (2001).

Visitation is set to Charles Ives’ Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, while Empire Garden is performed to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 for Cello and Piano, Op. 102 and V is set to Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E flat for piano and strings, Op. 44.

While many choreographers would drone on about the complex meanings that the pieces evoke, Morris is all about the music. And Dallas is in for a treat, because he exclusively works with live music. That is how, he says, the dancers learn everything.

“When I decide on a piece of music, the first thing I do is play it for them,” Morris says. “Then I work in the studio, bar by bar, page by page, with the pianist, so that the dancers learn the piece, as they are learning the music. They are inside the music. … From the very first second, the music is the same thing as the dance.

Live music used to be the norm – specifically in ballet – but it has fallen by the wayside as dance companies have been forced to cut costs. Modern dance companies have traditionally never used live music, and when they do it’s more of a special effect than an integral part of the experience. But for Morris, there is no reason for music not to be live. It is more expensive and complicated, but, he says, entirely worth it. It is all a matter of prioritization.

So his priority is to use live music; but not just live music – good music. He chooses music that he loves, that can bear being listened to many times, stands up to the scrutiny of examination, and has a dance in it somewhere.

Empire Garden will also be performed this weekend at the Winspear.

That commitment translates to his involvement in arts education. The School at the Mark Morris Dance Center offers dance classes for local children, as well as outreach programs and other education opportunities, to help children better learn how to operate with other people.

“As a citizen of this society, it’s my duty to return some of what I’ve gleaned from this culture to other younger members of the culture,” Morris says. “Without art, education and art experience, there is no chance of any kind of civilization.

They can take classes in yoga, Pilates, singing and, of course, dance technique. Which for any professional dancer is imperative; technique is the foundation for any performance.

“The reason for technique is for it to vanish at the moment of performance,” he says.

The performative aspect of his work is what helps keep Morris relevant in this fickle artistic world, as does his personal involvement in MMDG. He still runs many of the company’s rehearsals, teaches classes and is actively involved in the day-to-day running of the company. This helps to solidify the relationship between him and the dancers and helps to maintain their interest as they all work closely together to create a good show.

But how does he keep an audience interested? The main obstacle that any dance company faces is filling the seats.

“I don’t know how anyone figures out to please an audience except with free drinks! Or the chance to be on TV; that’s the biggest opiate,” he says. “So, aside from those things, I don’t know, I just I have to trust in my experience and my taste. [At my shows] the musicians will be great, the dancers will be great, the lighting will work, and we’ll start pretty much on time. If you don’t like one dance, there will be another in a few minutes.

The best way to prepare yourself for one of his shows, Morris says, is to “not prepare yourself. Just come willing to watch and listen. That’s all it takes.”

Keep reading for more from my conversation with Morris:

D.G.: What do you think television shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? have done for dance in the U.S.?

M.M.: I don’t know …it’s hard to say. It can’t be bad. It gives people a look at the possibility of something that could happen.

D.G.: Have they made dance more accessible?

M.M.: Oh no. Certainly the ballet industry isn’t making dance accessible. It is still, unfortunately, sort of elitist. That’s not to say it can’t be esoteric. But it is a select group of people that do it and [a certain group of people that attend the shows.] If you had to choose between a big ballet company versus one of these TV shows, what is exposing more people to dancing? Obviously it’s the TV, because more people are watching TV. So I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It has its own value.

D.G.: I agree, it’s kind of this new phenomena and no one really knows what it’s going to do.

M.M.: It happens periodically. I think it’s fine to have something to watch that is about dancing, and then there is this terrible trauma of reality shows, tela-novella aspect of it. It’s entertaining. It’s not my thing, but my thing doesn’t have to be everyone else’s thing.

D.G.: With the growing relationship between multimedia techniques and the stage, where do you think dance will go from here?

M.M.: What I do is basically on an empty stage, and I have music and dancing. I’m very low-tech. Other people use [new technologies], specifically, the great and late Merce Cunningham. It seems as if it’s a big part of what people are doing. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

D.G.: You started the Mark Morris Dance Company at a young age with a group of your friends and grew it into the world-renown company it is today. Here, in North Texas, there are a lot of emerging dance companies coming out of the local universities. What advice would you give them in starting their companies?

M.M.: You have to dance. You have to make up dances and get people to see them and work within the means that you have. If you can’t afford the space for more than three days, then you have to make the dance up in three days. …You have to trick yourself. That’s what I do constantly. I pick music that I’m not sure is going to turn into something and then I work on it, and force it, to a certain extent, and see what happens. Everything you do [as a new company] is experimental … but that’s what [it should be].

D.G.: What do we have to look forward to from you in the future?

M.M.: My chief job is MMDG. Sometimes I direct and choreograph operas, and I’m conducting some now. … I work so deeply with music … it seemed like a logical step. It’s fascinating and terrifying, and I’m adding gradually to my repertoire. I’ll be doing more [conducting], but I’m not trying to take over and to transit into another career. … I don’t have a grand plan. I have things, of course, coming up in the next few years that I’m working on. This is all I know how to do. It’s not going to change much, except I hope that I stay interesting and become more so.