The Mark Morris dancer performs L'Allegro.
Mon Aug 2 2010
What did they have you do at the audition? How did you get into the modern program?
Oh, God, this is sort of embarrassing. They had us do a mellow technique class. Then we had to do three-minute solos of our choice; mine was a jazz solo that I had won a bunch of competitions with. It was set to Deniece Williams—a gospel song—so it was really saturated with over-emoting and splits and it was very, very jazzy. The faculty made fun of me afterward, but they could tell that I had a lot of soul, and they could help me with the other stuff. I couldn't point my feet but I could express my feelings.
And they could see your line?
I had no line. [Laughs] I danced from the guts.
Did you learn the Graham technique right away?
Graham was the main thrust of technique. Dianne Markham, who's still there, taught based on a Nikolais sensibility. She's a really good comp teacher; she was great with creativity. Mabel Robinson was from Ailey, but she was also based in Graham. [The school] was very heavily Graham-based, which made me really strong. I was a toothpick. I had no musculature.
Did you also study ballet?
We did. And the ballet teachers had giant careers—Melissa Hayden was harsh. We didn't get her because we were too beneath her. They definitely had a lower idea of the modern department; we were sort of the dogs of dance. I basically learned all of my ballet from Marjorie Mussman in New York because she had a way of teaching people—getting the best out of each person individually and they weren't capable of that at the school.
How long were you in North Carolina?
I went for all of high school. During that time, I auditioned for Hubbard Street and got a job. I worked with them very briefly; we were not a good match. They were too technical for me, so I was let go. Then, I worked with a couple of small companies in Chicago.
What do you mean by "too technical"?
I remember I would get notes on the distance between my fingers. It's an incredible company, but as it was more like a group of corps de ballet dancers—I was a little too rough around the edges for that and I couldn't do the gymnastic feats they wanted. So I was happy they let me go. Again, happy to be sent out of the room. [Laughs]
When did you first encounter Mark Morris?
I met Mark in 1989. He was in Brussels at the time, but he came back to Jacob's Pillow for a three-week residency with his company. I took the workshop when I was 15 and returned to the School of the Arts. Part of their jury system was that the faculty would grill you and rip you to pieces. The questioning was, "Who do you want to work for?" When I met Mark, I thought, I have to work for this guy. Their immediate response was, "He's a mess, he's never going to make it, he has no future." Swear to God. The following year, they were showing the BBC program [about Morris] and going, "You should really keep an eye out for this guy." I was so proud.
That was in 1994. In 1989, though, you were only 15 when you met Morris. What was that experience like?
It was incredible. I learned some of Dido, some of Soap-Powders and Detergents—ancient dance. Kraig Patterson choreographed a piece. Oh, and [Morris's] Strict Songs—that's a great one—to Lou Harrison music. A really hard dance. And Mark was working on The Hard Nut. He has no shortage of ideas, so when he said, "Let's do the 'Waltz of the Flowers' dance," I don't know how many versions I saw. [The company was] rehearsing and he would let us look in the doorway, which now he would never let happen. [Laughs] But one day, he had a gigantic scenario and the next day he tossed it out completely and started over. The company was so happy to be back in the states; they were so friendly. Even though I was young, they were very receptive, and we all were hanging out together at the barn and going out for drinks. It was a different scene back then.
Did Mark say anything to you?
He was very complimentary; I'm pretty sure he met my parents. There's a picture of us—and me with braces—that's pretty unbelievable. I think it's up in my locker. Because I was so young, I escaped some of the wrath that he might have given other people. I didn't get that till later. [Laughs] He knew about my surgeries, so he thought that was sort of tragic. He's always been really supportive.
When you got the call from the company, you were living in Chicago?
I was dancing with small groups. Jan Erkert, who now runs the [dance department at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]. Bob Eisen. I was just taking jobs. And then I was waiting tables, and I got a call from Barry [Alterman], the manager at the time, and he said, "Come to New York and start understudying." I lost the feeling in my legs completely. Then, I got in a truck and came. Luckily they did a ton of L'Allegro's that year. There were a couple of older dancers who were making their way out. The first time I did it was in Boston in '94 and over the course of that year I got to do more and more in it. The first place we performed was Australia. I went from not touring ever to this—and this was my dream. I looked up to these people so much I couldn't even talk to them. The age difference was so big that I was sort of a nervous wreck around them.
What was the age difference?
There was a girl I went to high school with who was two years older than me and then there was a big jump. And then the older people were over 40. I was 20. That was hard for them, too. And Mark couldn't even believe that he couldn't take me out for a drink to celebrate. [Laughs] It was a very different separation in age than there is now. It was a little more mixed up. But yeah, over the course of that year I did a bunch of L'Allegro's with them and took up odd jobs in New York, and then they asked me to join full time.
Was it what you wanted work-wise? Did you feel you made a mistake?
No. There are very few of us who get to come in and do a bunch of stuff right away, which I think is great. I'm really glad I got to watch L'Allegro from the house. I got to see a lot of the repertory from the house or from turning pages [for the pianist] in the pit. We used to have a whole system with Grand Duo: You turned pages, then you picked up costumes, then you got to do one section. The pit was the best seat in the house. Between the violinist and the pianist? I got to watch the older company do things, and so it really affected the way I dance. There are certain dancers—I still try to do it like them.
Did you have dancers who mentored you in the company?
Actually two male dancers: Guillermo Resto and Kraig Patterson. Guillermo's dancing is so straight-ahead, so straight out of humanity, but with absolute grace and soul. There's no way I can look like him doing it, but I know he took audiences to a place where you could feel his heart. And Kraig has such delicate intricacies and levels of creativity that it's almost too much! Absolutely astonishing possibilities watching him. There's always a surprise. It comes out of nowhere.
Was it difficult for you when they left?
Yeah. Definitely. There have been chunks of people leaving, but that was an end of a true era of different dancers. They both coached me back in 1989. Not that it was that private, but I remember learning New Love Song Waltzes, which is one of my favorites; you'd throw yourself to the floor. Because of my intense training, I held myself like an inch above the floor thinking that that was what was supposed to happen, and Guillermo came over and was like, "Just let yourself go." I realized I was suspended off the floor and I started laughing. It was the dumbest thing that I'd been ingrained to make shapes in a certain formal, strenuous way and to actually just fall and let yourself absolutely be into the ground was refreshing. [Laughs] It was like, Duh! That has a totally different feeling.
Tell me about L'Allegro. You watched it before you danced it. Where?
I first watched it from the house in Australia. It blew me away. It was beyond all the dancers on the stage. For instance, the pastoral scenes just carried on into the wings—they went on forever and ever. There was no limit to the proscenium or the music or the design. It just continued beyond all the personalities, beyond Mark's personality. It was just larger than life.
What did you first perform?
I did all the group sections. He gave a lot of weight to the women's roles; for instance, "Mountains" is done by a baritone singer, and it's always performed by a very lean woman, and it's a huge, muscular solo. Fascinating, that choice to me. Now the specialty things I do are "Three Graces" at the beginning. I do "Come and Trip It," which has the male section—I love doing that section because, again, he has the section for men start with two women. It's very meaty. Then I do a bird solo, the "Sweet Bird." Those are the main things. My second act is a lot calmer. Although I get to do "Melancholy Octet," which is an absolute honor. It's probably my favorite section.
The lyric has to do with how the line between sorrow and joy is so fine that you don't really know where one starts and where one ends. It's ecstasy and agony at the same time, which to me refers to some of the greatest art. If you're laughing and crying in the same instant? It's absolute.