The Mark Morris Dance Group performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Mark Morris is equal parts diva and democrat – a big, mouthy guy who dominates his company but also likes his dancers to be individuals. He is one big bundle of contrasts: louche and refined, old-fashioned and avant garde, spiritual and spunky.
Morris has been dubbed the “Mozart of modern dance” because of his precocious, prolific talent. Born in 1956, he began dance aged nine years old at his local school in Seattle, learning a mix of styles including flamenco and Balkan folk dance. By 13, he was teaching at the school; at 14, he choreographed his first piece. On turning 19, he went to New York to perform and, at 24, he founded the Mark Morris Dance Group. By 30, he was the foremost young choreographer in America.
The company began as a group of friends and was run on a shoestring. In 1988, just two years after forming, they were given a three-year residence replacing the outgoing Maurice Béjart, at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. It was both a massive boost and a huge strain. In Belgium, Morris’s mouth got him into trouble (Béjart was declared “shit”; Belgium’s monarch, Queen Fabiola, described as a “Maggie Thatcher hairdo of death”). So did his work: he was pilloried in the Belgian press, culminating with the front-page headline “Mark Morris, go home!” During this period, however, he created Dido and Aeneas and L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato, the works that sealed his international reputation.
Returning to New York in 1991, Morris continued his prolific output not only for his own company, but for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project and for a number of other ballet companies. The Mark Morris Dance Group now has its own purpose-built studios in Brooklyn, and if Morris himself is less outrageous these days, he is no less iconoclastic.
Morris is extremely eclectic, but there are a few common themes: music, for one, is key. He starts with a pre-existing score, and the structure of the dance always relates closely to the structure of the music – though be prepared for surprises, for stories and feelings you’d never guess were there in the music.
As dancers go, Morris’s are a diverse bunch. Watch out for how the choreography shows them as individuals and as part of a larger group. Morris also mixes moods (serious, playful, crude) and styles (ballet, folk, mime and, worth seeing in particular, folky lines and circles). He mixes gender roles too – not so much to challenge them, as to disregard them. Men and women can take the same parts or swap roles: a man can play a woman or vice versa, while duets can have interchangeable partners.
There is no archetypal “Morris dancer” – they are too diverse. Some standouts have been, the towering Rob Besserer, hulking Guillermo Resto, and tiny Lauren Grant.
Morris seriously considered becoming director of Scottish Ballet, but withdrew his application at a late stage to focus on his dance centre in Brooklyn. “It was a lovely dream that didn’t come true,” he said. “So now I’ll take over the Royal Ballet, right?”
In his own words
“It’s always from music, always, always, always.” – Salon.com, 2003
“My philosophy of dance? I make it up and you watch it. End of philosophy.”
“Big bottoms, large breasts – OK with me!”
In other words
“His specialty, like Balanchine’s, is to create an image, to music, that will flower in the mind, like music, into complex emotional truth.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker, 2001
“Sways effortlessly and enthusiastically between the high and the low, the earthy and the airy, the goofy and the grand.” – Alex Ross, New Yorker, 2007
“Even the gruffest dance phobe finds it hard to resist the rapt fusion of body and brain which marks his choreography.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 1999
“Obviously, Mark Morris’s choreographic inspiration is to be found up his butt – which is not worth going far to see.” – Le Drapeau Rouge (Belgium), 1989
“MM stands for ‘Music, man!'”
“MM stands for Mickey Mouse.”*
(“Mickey-Mousing” is a disparaging term for the exaggerated effect of choreography that simply mimics its music – like a cartoon character running when the music’s fast, stopping when it stops and jumping up on high notes.)
George Balanchine for his musicality or Paul Taylor for a certain blithe American spirit. But really, there’s no one quite like Mark Morris.
Now watch this
Where to see him next
Check the Mark Morris Dance Group website for performance dates.