Mark Morris: “Imagination, Interest, Depth of Pursuit” – Mark Morris Dance Group Debuts at the Joyce

After more than four decades as a New York City-based dance company, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) will make its debut at The Joyce Theater with two programs that feature audience favorites and rarely seen pieces, as well as a world premiere and a stage premiere. “Program A” (August 1-5) will include Numerator (2017), A Wooden Tree (2012), Italian Concerto (2007), and Grand Duo (1993) while “Program B” (August 8-12) will include Castor and Pollux (1980), Tempus Perfectum (2021), All Fours (2003), and the world premiere of A minor Dance, set to Partita No. 3 in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. “Program B” also marks the stage premiere of Tempus Perfectum, that premiered during MMDG’s Live from Brooklyn livestream performance in May 2021 but has never been performed in front of a live audience. Acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris, MMDG’s Founder and Artistic Director, spoke to me about the upcoming debut and more. 

Grand Duo, Seattle 2022 – Photo: Jim Coleman

Please tell us about MMDG’s debut at the Joyce, featuring several of your works and a world premiere.

The world premiere, A minor Dance, is set to Partita No. 3 in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s in seven movements, and it’s thrilling; it will be played by Colin Fowler, my Music Director. It’s for six dancers and I just finished it the other day; no one has seen it yet. We’ve performed at the Joyce for various galas, but we’ve never done a season there. It’s quite small and used to be a movie theater before Eliot Feld and his organization turned it into a dance theater. Having been a cinema, there’s no fly space, no real crossover, no real pit, so I can’t do big orchestra pieces there because there’s no room. We’re generally at Brooklyn Academy of Music or one of the theaters at Lincoln Center, but this is a chance to do a showing in the summer in New York that’s not outside and that will feature chamber-sized pieces. There’s no bigger piece of music this season than a quartet, and the biggest dance has 12 people in it. So, there are four pieces on each of the two programs and everyone should come to both because the pieces are very different one from the other. There’s also a piece that was one of my very first dances ever, from around 1980, called Castor and Pollux; no one in my company has ever done it. So, the program ranges from one of the oldest dances I’ve ever choreographed to the newest one from just a few days ago.

You grew up in a family that loved music and dance and you were introduced to flamenco early on. You also got to know a diversity of dances. Please tell us about growing up exposed to all of these influences.

I grew up in Seattle, and Seattle was extremely varied in population; especially as people had always been coming to the West Coast from Asia. I was taking Spanish dance lessons and I was a folk dancer, learning Bulgarian folk dances. I graduated high school early because I hated it, it was a waste of time and I was already dancing full time. Someone who set pieces for the company I was with—Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble—was a Romanian woman, and I was very close to spending a month or so in Bucharest dancing there, and also in Cluj where she was based, because I was going to Europe anyway. I had Romanian friends and we did all of these Romanian dances that I loved, Invartita in particular, it has such a kooky rhythm, and I was particularly attracted to Romanian music. But this was also a very popular thing in the ’70s; there was a lot more folk dancing in the States at universities, it was hippie, it was revolutionary, and it was part of the community in Seattle. I also taught Croatian dance briefly in Anacortes, north of Seattle, which was basically a fishing town that had been settled after World War II; a lot of escapees from Eastern Europe were there, and a big Croatian settlement. They spoke the language but didn’t know the dances very well. Then, I spent a month in Skopje in Macedonia, now North Macedonia. I would go in and out of Greece and Bulgaria, based in Skopje, because I knew the principal choreographer of the national dance company there. It was Yugoslavia at the time, so everything was nationalized. And my time there was fabulous! During the 10 months in Europe at 17, I traveled around seeing what I could, and I ended up in Spain where I was for several months studying flamenco. 

All Fours – Photo: Stephanie Berger

You know, I like figures and circles and group dances, and that’s part of it. But really, if you start deciding who made up step-together, step-touch or step-hop, step-hop, or hop-step, hop-step… I mean, everybody has those in the world, and ballet or modern dance are forms of ethnic dance. I also have a big interest in classical Indian dance, watching it and coaching friends who ask me. I’m an amateur at it but a very serious one. So, I keep track of a lot of music and dances to this day. Some people say: “Oh, you can see the folk dancing in his work…” okay, well, we’re in a circle, big deal! A big part of what I do isn’t necessarily operatic in its presentation. I don’t like people to dance at me, I like for them to dance for me. I like to watch it, I don’t want to be called out. You want to feel like you could join in? Don’t… but it’s nice to feel that.

You said the magic word for me—operatic—because I come from the world of opera, and I know that you’ve also directed opera productions for major opera companies. How does directing opera differ for you?

It’s the same as my job. I work in opera sometimes, I direct, I conduct some. I sing… not professionally. And I’ve worked only with live music since I’ve had a company so I’m always coaching musicians, singers, and instrumentalists. Every show we do is with living musicians. That’s it. If you don’t want musicians, you don’t get my company! That, of course, makes it more complicated and more expensive. Very often I work with vocal music, so I’ve always dealt with singers. Actually, they’re bringing back my production of Orfeo ed Euridice next year at the Met which is from 16 years ago. My first opera work was with Peter Sellars who is a very close friend of mine. I’m interested in directing operas and if there are dances in them, I choreograph them. I also spent a decade at Tanglewood, I premiered new pieces there. I was working with the Fellows before the orchestra came every summer; those days are gone and that program is over. So, while on the faculty at Tanglewood, I was teaching musicians, doing scene work with singers, coaching string quartets and pianists in order to have a point of view that isn’t just from the page but from listening and moving and breathing. It’s important for people to breathe, especially singers, but not exclusively. So, yes, this is regular for me, it’s something I love to do. I’m a choreographer because of music, not the other way around.

Numerator, Tanglewood 2017 – Photo: Christopher Duggan

You mentioned that you sing; what kind of voice do you have?

Loud baritone. There’s a piece in the repertory of my company that I sing that’s from the popular songs of the ’20s and 30s. I sing occasionally. It’s not an opera voice at all. Also, I rehearse only with live music and every week we have a session with Colin Fowler where all the dancers collect and we spend about an hour sight-singing, learning rudiments of theory, and how to read music better because, since we always have live music, the more you know about it the better. So, you know, everyone is scared to sing in public and we sing together, the 15 of us who are there, we do exercises and harmony. I read music perfectly well, but that’s not usually required at all for dancers, including at the great conservatories for dance and music in our nation. There’s very little training or experience working between media, like dancing and music, and they’re entirely related. I work with that sort of holism. These performing arts go together; they’re human behavior.

I love the idea of having dancers sight-sing. That does something to the overall understanding of performance in general, as it does when you have singers dance; there’s nothing like singing while being in tune with your body and with rhythm in that way.

Right, absolutely!

You founded the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980. What was your initial vision for the company? 

To put on a show. I was making up dances and I wanted people to see them. I was living in Hoboken at the time, and I got a grant from the New Jersey State Council. I was working in Manhattan with different companies which got me that small but very important grant to put on my first show in New York.

Did you imagine this spectacular trajectory for your company over more than four decades?

Not really. It was not my vision to have a giant industrial complex. I have a great studio in Brooklyn and there’s a big very popular school, there’s Dance for PD, a program for people with Parkinson’s disease; I have ten studios for my company and the studio I work in is the best in New York. It’s a big responsibility to keep the whole thing going and I’m not the Executive Director, I’m the Artistic Director so I’m not the authority on a lot of things. I can tell you that times are very difficult times right now and a lot of people are having trouble staying afloat. But work is coming back, that’s why we’re doing this optimistic season at the Joyce for two weeks. Overall, the company is very much a thriving institution in downtown Brooklyn and it’s not what I imagined. I wanted to put on shows for people to watch and that’s fundamentally why we’re there, but it’s quite a big operation and a big responsibility for a lot of people. There’s more work than there was, there’s more travel. It wasn’t my intention to have a letterhead and a logo and then become a choreographer. It was the opposite: I had dances and I wanted to show them, and that’s still basically the idea, but it’s a lot more complicated now because of the scale of it and how long we’ve been around.

What would you tell kids who are interested in dance but are growing up in an environment that’s not open to ballet or dance in general? 

I’m not someone who says follow your dream and it will become true, and anything you want can be yours. Somehow, people place the responsibility of satisfaction or consolation or comfort or happiness on the Arts and I don’t think that’s the Arts’ responsibility. I think it’s a possibility but that’s not the reason, they aren’t there just to make you feel better. So, if someone is after being an artist, go ahead! If you want to dance, you can learn plenty of dancing on your phone, almost everyone has a phone. I never went to college, I certainly never went to a conservatory, and I have all sorts of honorary doctorates. I’m well known, I’m good at my job, and I’m kind of smart but that’s not from formal education at all. The dance and music stuff are, but you know, I barely studied those things. I was making it up. I still am. I don’t know if there is a right or wrong way, I don’t have a five-year plan. I mean, I have some plans because you have to plan ahead to do work. 

My family was very supportive, but they weren’t much in the arts, and we didn’t have a lot of money, yet here I am now. I’m certainly doing what I want and there’s a big success in my company and in the work we do. My father, who was a schoolteacher, was insistent that I go to college. He died when I was 15. I didn’t go to college, I didn’t want to, I was already doing professionally what I wanted to do. But I knew how to type. You know, I can change a tire and a diaper, I can cook and I speak a couple of languages okay, and I can get around. The Executive Director of my company, Nancy Umanoff, and I have had a very close partnership over the last 30-something years and we each do what we can do, the other person does the rest of it. Fortunately, I’m only about 7% and she’s 93% of the work that goes on. That’s not entirely a joke. But we have a different education, different skills, different experiences, and we work together in a very, very good and enviable way. Also, in most cases, you do what you want anyway, in some form, whatever your situation. But I would say, as advice goes, admire people and be interested in things. Imagination, interest, depth of pursuit… follow something all the way! 

Any special message for your fans in New York City?

Run for your lives! No… Come during the first week because the second week is a completely different program, and you’ll want to see that too! It’s an eight-piece program and it’s rare that we do this sort of a repertory show. We’re usually doing bigger projects in bigger theaters. But for this, in summertime, the theater is wonderful and intimate, so it’ll be very personal. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but I’ll promise that it’s very good.

Info & tickets to Mark Morris Dance Group at the Joyce Theater – Aug. 1-12

Mark Morris Dance Group

Top photo: Mark Morris – Photo: Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group

About Maria-Cristina Necula (182 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.