Mark Morris would rather write about his work “than have other people do it.” That’s why he may have agreed, when asked by the New York Times recently, to write a piece about the making of Serenade, his latest work, which premiered in March at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) during the Mark Morris Dance Group’s spring season. In this, Morris wrote a veritable how-to manual on choreography in which he proclaimed, basically, that he makes dances “for the hell of it.” And if his spring season is any indicator of how this approach to choreography works, then aspiring choreographers should perhaps heed this insouciant advice. Indeed, Morris has been making dances for the hell of it for 20 years, and the BAM program spanned his career, showcasing such early works as Love Song Waltzes (1989) and Going Away Party (1990), and later works like the vibrant V (2001), along with three premieres: the Indian-inspired Kolam (2002), made for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project; Resurrection (2002), set to Richard Rodgers’s Slaughter on 10th Avenue; and Serenade (2003), the Bharata Natyam-esque dance solo for Morris. And, whereas some critics have made much of Morris reaching middle age, he eschews any sign of conformity or staid maturity. Although now he and his company have set up camp in Fort Greene (conveniently across from BAM) in the new, amenities-laden Mark Morris Dance Center, bringing a large organizational dance presence to the neighborhood.
The Rail was given a tour of the new building, which boasts three dance studios, plenty of windows—one with a view of the Verrazano Bridge—as well as a small but growing archival library, a costume shop, and physical therapy and pilates rooms. Along with children and adult dance classes, the center offers a subsidized rate on rehearsal space for other dance troupes. Along with BAM’s plans for a new cultural district and growing dance venues in other neighborhoods, it seems that Brooklyn could slowly but steadily be on its way to rivaling Manhattan as the capital of all things terpsichorean—almost.
In the midst of a heavy touring schedule, and before the start of a spring dance intensive, Rail dance editor Vanessa Manko sat down with Morris in his lime green office and talked with the don of modern dance about his company’s new home, his new responsibilities, and dance in general.
Vanessa Manko (The Rail): The Mark Morris Dance Center opened during a difficult time, to say the least—September 2001. Nearly two years later, how are you settling into your new home and neighborhood?
Mark Morris: Oh, it’s great. It works. Completely. It’s great. It did immediately. A lot of my dancers already lived here before we even started this building. First of all, if we were in Manhattan we wouldn’t have light or air, because there’s no such thing; this would be the shortest building around. So that’s fabulous because there are all the open windows. There’s incredible light all the time. It’s great. It’s not closed in. And the school is going great. We have hundreds of people who come here all the time for dancing. It’s great.
Rail: Do you find that having the Mark Morris Dance Center has freed or hindered your work? You must have new responsibilities to contend with.
Morris: In that it’s a big expensive building to maintain, of course. And it was a great deal of work to get it built, and of course that’s difficult. And you know we never had a place to work before. It was always shitty. So the fact that we come here every day is what I wanted. It’s become regular. It’s what I wanted.
Rail: Your spring season reflected a broad range of your work and included the new Resurrection (set to Richard Rodgers’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue), along with more classical pieces like V (set to Schumann) and Serenade. In general your works seem to be filled with paradox—witty yet serious, irreverent yet respectful—and there is also a kind of blending of high and low art influences. In that way I’m reminded of Balanchine, (whom you’ve been compared to throughout your career) who also bridged high and low art, choreographing for Broadway and Hollywood musicals as he did. Do you find that the juxtapositions inherent to your style feed off each other, or do they come from completely different places?
Morris: I don’t think that way. The high and low art thing is what people say about my work, but it’s not what I say at all. I don’t find country western music low art, and Schumann high art. It doesn’t occur to me.
Rail: So it’s just what music you’re particularly interested in and what you’d liked to see a dance set to?
Morris: Yeah. And what is very good. So it’s no sort of response. It’s not reactionary that way. But so much is made of this contrasting this. Isn’t that what art does anyway? Is it all supposed to be the same? How is this different? Because it’s good? That’s what I don’t get. This versus this—comedy versus tragedy, what else is art? I don’t know what else one would do besides what I’m doing. You can do whatever you want in whatever way you want, but I don’t think I’ve discovered any secret of juxtaposition. It’s just here. Here. Watch.
Rail: Your spring season at BAM coincided with the start of the war on Iraq and, at the risk of sounding corny, what place do you think dance may have during times of war?
Morris: I don’t want to talk about the war because I think it’s insane, and obscene, and illegal. It’s not like now more than ever we need modern dance. [Laughs.] We need art because that’s what civilization is. Good is better than bad, but we need even bad art. We need imagination. So whatever else is going on, that’s a constant. And I’m not talking about healing or art therapy; that’s a different discipline. That’s different than what I do. It’s not like a big hug for the country. [Laughs.]
Rail: Several new dance forms are emerging—pieces that are very multidisciplinary and works that use quite a bit of technology. Merce Cunningham’s Biped (1999) is just one of the well-known examples. What do you think of dance and technology?
Morris: I’m not very interested, but it’s fine with me. People should do whatever they want. I mean Merce [Cunningham] always does great work, so, hurray if he has another thing to play with. That’s great. But, for me, it’s not that interesting as something to watch. Maybe it’s good for research or something, but for me I’m very low-tech. I’m not that interested in extra stuff. I rarely even use sets of any kind or props; I don’t use much stuff. I like the stage, the dancers, and the music, and you know, I dress them up sometimes. But I’d rather use the money on the dancers.
Rail: Speaking of dancers, how are you enjoying teaching the open modern dance classes and your spring and summer dance intensives?
Morris: I like it. I like to see who’s around. And I have plenty to offer as a teacher. You know, a lot of teachers aren’t professional artists, which is fine. They needn’t be. There are many people who are great teachers and it’s not instead of a performing career. It’s just that there is another view to be had. And I’m very interested in how dancing is done. How it’s put together. So I like teaching a lot. Also, it’s good for business, but I would do it anyway. I mean, my company is off so I’m teaching so that something is still going on.
Rail: I know. You just got back from touring quite a bit and now you’ve jumped right into the spring dance intensive.
Morris: Oh. That’s regular. That’s my job.
Rail: The Mark Morris Dance Center has certainly brought dance into the Fort Greene neighborhood, with the dance classes for children and adults. Do you find it at all ironic that you came onto the dance scene as this renegade choreographer and now you’re spearheading this rather “grown-up” and established dance organization?
Morris: The irony that I’m in charge? Who should be? I’m middle-aged, I’m perfectly responsible and legitimate, and I’m a good artist. Why shouldn’t I have something to offer people? It’s been over 20 years since I’ve had a company. I’ve had a company for a long time and people like it. So why not? I don’t think it’s ironic. We’re the people that run things now. It happens in every generation. It’s nothing new. It’s been going on for a long time.
Rail: Are you a Brooklynite?
Morris: No. I live in Manhattan. But I’m here everyday. Yes, and my genius office. What’s better than this? It’s great. [Laughs.]
Rail: I can’t think of another profession—besides that of choreographer—for which having a Jacuzzi seems entirely justifiable.
Morris: I need it.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.