The Mark Morris dancer performs L'Allegro.
Mon Aug 2 2010
What did you learn about Mark's choreography from having L'Allegro be your first show?
I learned about grace, strength and community. The patterning is so specific that if you're not in the right place, the whole thing doesn't work. And about expression. Over the years, I've gotten to experience those different parts and how they make you move. For instance, the "Sweet Bird" solo—there are all these birds, there are solos, duets and flocks of birds and then it ends, and the cadenza is for one woman and a flute. And there are thousands of people looking at you and there are no moves, there's no movement. Every year I do it, Mark makes me do less. He's forcing this entire room full of people to listen to one flute player and watch the tremor of the ends of my fingertips. I can barely move, which I think is incredibly frustrating and against my instincts. And it feels crazy magical.
Does Mark talk to you about that?
Oh, yes. [Laughs] I get more notes than anybody, I think.
About doing less?
No. He tells everybody to do less. Even in an audition, he'll tell people who are trying to impress him to calm down. It's very counterintuitive. But it's clear. I see it happen when he coaches someone. You can see that it often just makes it clear, and his dances are so dense, musically and rhythmically, that if you had everybody at a thousand percent, it would blow you out of the water. There would be no shape.
And it would feel cheap. It's that intricacy on top of the simplicity that makes it explode.
Yeah. To do it bigger doesn't mean better. But there are real subtleties in Mark's work, like the way the upper body has to be supple, that isn't in a lot of dancing; it seems almost like you're not doing enough or that it's too subtle to be noticed, but it shows humbleness and a level of expression that's very subtle.
So what does he give you notes about?
[Squeaks] Everything! He never wants you to feel like once you've done it correctly that it's for a lifetime. He wants to keep you on the edge, and he knows this about himself: Sometimes he has to step out of the kitchen. With an old dance, he's going to want to keep fussing with it and sometimes he actually has to force himself to step out and let it happen. He tweaks things every time we're with him. He may be trying to show a newer dancer through coaching an older dancer how to behave or how to learn subtleties in his work, how to move other parts of the body, but you don't necessarily know that. You think you're being ripped to shreds and it might be for someone else's benefit. [Laughs]
It's so complicated being a dancer.
It is, it is. But that's why people stay—because there's so much variety and Mark is so brilliant. There are so many levels. Some not so easy, but it's constantly fascinating.
Can you give me an example?
I think music pieces he chooses, where you go, That's totally undanceable, or, Why would someone ever choose that? And then we end up humming it like it's a folk song. Stuff like that to how funny he can be—how ingeniously creative he can be on a daily basis, but that he requires so much of your attention that sometimes even if we're not dancing hard, your brain is zapped. In working on new dances, he has mathematical challenges that he'll give us, conceptual challenges that are very intellectual, and there's not any other field that I would find that in. It's not like we just do his steps. He needs us individually to manifest his ideas that are often very complicated. He admits that the only class he failed was geometry, so he's spending the rest of his life changing that. You look at his dances and they're so specifically geometrical and there's some systems within dances that you may not be aware of as an observer, but that are absolute math and absolute science and that's the kind of stuff that's fascinating to us in his company. It keeps us alive, because we're a part of that.
What are some recent dances that mean a lot to you?
I find the Ives Piano Trio, Empire Garden, fascinating. There are these unbelievable layers of Americana folk themes played over crazy polyrhythms. You can make out "My Old Kentucky Home" in the midst of mayhem. Inside the dance it feels like pure chaos. Watching it, you can see these layers fit together, as a quilt of old folklore. I find it incredibly vibrant and fresh. It really moves me intellectually. There are moments of pure communism, where we are a part of a political concept that feels so real, I get chills. I love All Fours [set to Bela Bartok]. It's very complicated musically, but he clarifies it through his choreography. It's really edgy and it was different stylistically than other things he had made previously. Although he made Foursome [set to Erik Satie and Johann Nepomuk Hummel] shortly before that, and I loved that piece for its simplicity—for the opposite reasons that I love the Bartok. He tends to do that. He'll make something that's very dancerly, very complicated and then the next one might be just the inverse quality. I don't know if it's so black and white, but he goes into these beautiful patterns that I think are interesting. Because I'm an older dancer, I like the nondancing dances. I think the Satie turned out surprisingly beautiful: Socrates. While we were doing it, we went crazy because there's no change in dynamic—you would actually get sleepy listening to it and I would get more air-headed or slow over the day because of the style of music. But through the work of the designers, the whole effect felt absolutely stunning once we were onstage. It felt new, that Mark had tapped into some new territory that was absolutely grueling in the process. And terribly boring for us individually. And then when you finally felt it—it was almost frustrating that it worked so well. [Laughs] I was really surprised by that one.
Is he moving in that direction?
He's definitely moving away from dances where there are more steps. That's also because he's not dancing as much, but I think he feels dance is dying. He's said it publicly. So in order to reinvent it somehow with himself, he's blanking out the slate and starting more—I don't want to say pedestrian.
How do you feel about dance?
I never go to see dance. I go hear music as much as I can. I like the way dance feels and I do love Mark's works. I'm not a big fan of dancing that has to do with tricks and natural agility just for the sake of agility and the show-off aspects of dance. I'm not a big ballet fan unless there are certain qualities that are expressed more through older dancers or that relate to life. I am not proud to say that I don't see much dance. I like to have my expression affected more through visual art and music and the things I see on my own and literature. It suits me better than to work on, I want my legs to look like hers. That never really worked for me. Maybe it's cause I can't! [Laughs] Or from the beginning, I couldn't, so I went for something else. I love the Wooster Group. My favorite dance is what Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe do with stools attached to them in Emperor Jones. It's the greatest dance in the world.
How do you view musicality?
To me, it's very black and white. Mark is so specific with rhythms that you don't have a choice to rebel against them or not. I was lucky to get rhythm from my dad. [Laughs] Certain dancers have to count differently; some dancers feel more naturally, and I'm like that. It actually messes me up if I start to count too much. But sometimes things are very tricky, and we'll have to count in 16 bars of three before an entrance, and that is agonizing for me.
Is your father a good dancer?
He's a great dancer. He is a doctor and he would put down his doc kit coming home from work and I'd say, "Dad, stand over there!" and I had been waiting for him to come home and I'd choreographed some overhead lift in my head and he'd have to pick me up. I made him perform with me a lot when I was little. When he was about 40, I made him wear a long-sleeved white unitard, and I choreographed a duet to the love theme from Flashdance and he performed it. [Laughs] I cherish that. I thought that took a lot of guts. He's a doctor.
Or from anyone! A white unitard? Cruel.
[Laughs] I know.
You perform the male role of Tybalt in Morris's Romeo and Juliet. How did that happen?
I feel really lucky that I get to do a crazy villain part. Mark asked us in rehearsal whether we wanted to play a villain or a nice guy and I chose villain and luckily got it. It's exhausting emotionally for me. I have to eat a lot of red meat and I have to fire myself up because the Tybalt character—out of nowhere—is so spastically angry. It's really hard to gear it up because everyone's sort of dancing together and you have to be the real asshole. You have to be the serious jerk. It's thrilling to try to make it work, especially as a woman. I know that half of the audience isn't going to buy it. And they've told me. [Laughs] So maybe it helps put a little edge in it, but it's hard to be believable and not be a caricature of a male dancer. So Mark helped me with some things and then I would watch dancers who I felt moved more masculine than others as far as how to hold you hands and the weight in your arms and your gait. It was fascinating to figure out for me. And again, without cheapening it and making it a joke on a male character.
And Tybalt can look cheap, even when a man is dancing.
If the audience doesn't believe in your anger, you kind of blow the whole story because you set up the tension, and so the chip on your shoulder has to be so realistic. And obviously, it's not something that I'm familiar with. I am part Italian. [Laughs] But I don't have any real experience with grudges. I come from a very forgiving Catholic family. It's absolutely exhausting to keep up the menace. There was a time when I was almost joking and I went to strangle Romeo and I smiled; I was playing around but Mark saw it and asked me to do it. It makes it so sinister, the pleasure I receive out of this evil—it's gotten sicker since I started doing it. Yes. I can almost taste it. It's almost nauseating when it's over because I have gone to that dark place. I love doing it; it's emotionally nauseating but I feel really lucky to have gotten a part like that.