Mark Morris Dance Group

The choreographer presents two premieres at Mostly Mozart.

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Photograph: Robbie Jack

FLYING HIGH The MMDG performs the glorious V

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Photograph: Hilary Scott

Julie Worden and Craig Biesecker in Empire Garden

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Photograph: Hilary Scott

John Heginbotham in Visitation

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Costume sketches for Empire Garden (the yellow team) by Elizabeth Kurtzman

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Costume sketches for Visitation by Elizabeth Kurtzman

After banishing my iced coffee in favor of a glass of red wine ("Dunkin Donuts, give me a fucking break"), espousing the glory of the Kindle, and reading me a choice passage from a book about Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company ("If one is not a living mockery of one's own ideals, one has set one's ideals too low"), Mark Morris gets down to business. Next week, he returns to the Mostly Mozart Festival with two new works, which will have already premiered at Tanglewood.

Morris loves music; it's just the sort of environment he thrives in. "The Mark Morris Dance Group is a music organization," he notes with a twinkle in his eye. "I go to Tanglewood and it's like, 'Welcome Mr. Morris,' and they listen to me, and we have a wonderful collaboration. I'm talking about students—not even the kind of people I deal with, like Yo-Yo and Maestro Levine." Along with V—Morris's splendid 2001 dance set to Schumann—the new program features Empire Garden (to Ives's Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano), Visitation (to Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major), and the musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Morris spoke about music and dance at his Brooklyn dance center.

Have you been wanting to choreograph to Ives for a while?
I had been trying to work out when our schedules could sync up for Yo-Yo and Manny and me to work together. That's what it was. And they, as a team, begged me to please choreograph one of the Beethoven cello sonatas. I said, "I'll do one of the Beethovens but I also want to do something that's really hard, which is the Ives trio." I love Ives; I've never done a dance to Ives. This particular piece is so exquisite and rarely played. It's a really hard piece; it's probably not that rewarding. [Laughs] People refuse to understand it, but it's beautiful and funny and great. So it wasn't a deal [to have the Ives in exchange for the Beethoven]—but it was like, Let's do these two pieces, which is a big deal. Then, I switched the Beethovens. I started working on No. 2, and I decided it wasn't making me make up a dance and so I switched to No. 4. And that's what it remains. It's shorter, more romantic and much stranger. I thought No. 2 would be better for dancing, because it's more classical in the music history point-of-view of classical and No. 4 is much more sort of deranged and private and stormy and weird. Gorgeous. It's a smaller scale piece but it's better. I didn't think there was enough dance rhythm in it, but I was wrong. [Laughs]

You figured that out when you were in the studio?
I started working on it, and I couldn't come up with anything. I had my study score, music, everybody's ready to go—it's like, 'Here we go....' I changed everything and started without even studying the piece. I mean, I know it. I can keep up with the dancers. So, yeah, I don't do that very often. I'm usually more prepared, but a surprise is nice. And it works great with the Ives.

How short is the Beethoven? Twenty minutes?
It's less than that. It's in the teens of minutes and it's weird: It's in two movements and they're structured almost the same. There's this slow, weird kind of fantasia and then it goes into sort of bright rhythm. And then it happens again and the themes are almost identical. It's done with a very small palette—like the Schumann, where there's not a lot of musical information but it's spun into this incredible piece of music. That means you're a good composer, I think. [Laughs] That's how the Beethoven is; the themes just keep getting shorter and shorter. It's like, How did you even come up with that? It's amazing. And the dance is for two quartets and a soloist. So the soloist is either Maile Okamura or Dallas McMurray. It starts as five [dancers] and becomes nine. It's very open. It can be done interchangeably in a certain way. I like to do that.

How schizophrenic is it to make two dances at once?
I'm not schizophrenic. It's my job. I make up dances all the time. So to work on two is fun and interesting. One of the first times I was making up two pieces at the same time was long ago in Brussels. I worked on two very different dances: Going Away Party, [set to music by] Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and Behemoth, with no music. And nobody was in both of those pieces, so it was like I was in two different companies. It was really fun and interesting. But this time, how to cast them, I'm not sure; it probably relates to [2008's] Romeo & Juliet somehow. I don't know. I just wanted a smaller piece and a bigger piece. For the Ives, it can only be this big and still have a man and a woman who can cover the piece in case someone's injured.

How many dancers are in the Ives?
A lot—15. The costumes are for three teams of five and the dancers aren't necessarily that. But like the music, sometimes it looks like three or four dances are going on at the same time in completely different rhythms, tones, and it's really complicated. And of course my dancers, being geniuses, can sing it. They can find the cello part in that mess somewhere and they're dancing to this cello rhythm that doesn't relate at all to the piano or the violin necessarily. It's wild. That's why it's so hard to play, but my dancers—I don't know how they hear it, but they do.

How do you train them to do that?
It's what we do all the time. Also, I work with a pianist always. I say, "Let's do the cello part at half speed so you understand it," so the dancers learn it and then can hear it in the texture of the rest of the piece. I have a brilliant rehearsal pianist, Colin Fowler, who performs with us a lot; he plays the Ives on the piano—everybody knows it so thoroughly that it scares musicians because if they fuck up the dancers know it. They notice. Instead of "Faster, I'm off my leg, speed up." We don't do that. [Laughs]

What are the "teams"?
That's just a costume thing. There are basically three sets of costumes; the colors are all interrelated and there's no real pageant payoff. [Pauses] There may be one where it's set up that way, but mostly they all look great together. So the costumes are in three teams of five people and maybe a little bit of the dance is. The dance is a whole bunch of different things.

How so?
I wanted it to look a little Music Man. It's a little bit uniformy, a little bit flaggy. Well, this piece was started in 1904 and it's all these college tunes and hymns, and also I wanted it to remind me—I don't care if it reminds anyone else—of the Sunday afternoon concert in the bandstand in the park. It's New England. But it's also full madness and it's very Southern and there are all these spirituals and hymn tunes like [Ives] always did.

Doesn't the second movement have a crazy name?
"This Scherzo Is a Joke." Which I don't know if it is or not, because he was so interesting. It's very surprising and strange and it's formally just spectacular.

Is it humorous?
I don't know until anybody watches it. I think it's ominous and scary and weird and I think there are some jokes in it, but I don't know if anybody will think they're funny. It's hard to say. There is a big theme at the end of the second movement that busts into this big show-business finale of a hymn of the time, "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Of course I had to look up the song because I wanted to learn the text; it's Jesus's blood, but it's this weird sort of marching song and the words are, "There is a fountain filled with blood," and, "If you're a good Christian" et cetera. And I refer to the text of that and "Old Kentucky Home"—I kind of make up gestures that go with the words if there were words, so it just gives it strangeness. It's gesture language, a little bit.

What do you mean by gesture language?
I mean we don't just keep our arms out of the way so was can use our legs better. [Laughs] I mean people communicate from [the arms] and not from fifth position in arabesque and not from horrible faces that people make. It's not sign-language-encoded words for gesture, but it refers to the text of the song that you don't hear the words to.

How closely do you work with the musicians?
Very. I make it up with a pianist. Dancers have heard the recording; I don't use a recording at all; it's just to hear what the timbre, what the voicing is. It's organized and I can say, "Let's start at this bar number a little more slowly," or, "Bring out this voice," or, "I want this to sound more like the spiritual that it is," or, "Faster," or, "Ignore what's written," but in working with musicians I get pretty efficient because they're used to doing so much work so fast. I can say, "This place where it's marked fortissimo—make it mezzo forte." Or they'll ask, "Do you like it this way or that way better?" in reference to a bowing thing or a phrasing thing. Because I don't know all the technical stuff but I know what I like.

Do they generally do what you want?
[Nods] That's why we work together. I take suggestions of course. The first thing I did with Yo-Yo was Falling Down Stairs. He came to rehearsals and watched and then he would send me cassettes—this is how long ago it was—from his tour. He would Fed Ex a recording of that night's performance, and I would get it a couple of days later and he would have changed it and asked, "What do you think about this?" It's really interesting. If anything, musicians get overly sympathetic. Like in the Bach, Yo-Yo doesn't have to read it because he's been playing it his whole life; that happened a little bit with the Mozart, too. The musicians start to watch and get so empathetic that there's nothing to stand on. Like "I'll slow down," and the piece falls apart in a certain way. Or you can challenge each other with little surprises and that's great, but if you oversympathize and get out of a rhythmic undercurrent then the tension of the music falls apart and the dances do too. That happens with dancing all the time.

In the slow movement of the Schumann, I said, "I'm mostly interested in the rests, like when nothing is happening," and people who are performing usually rush those because they're afraid of there being no music. It's not that it speeds up, it's that it's too short and it makes me anxious. I want it to be this sort of death silence. People are trained in a certain romantic style of playing that I don't like that much. I like my Chopin very mathematical and brittle and beautiful. But if it's too movie, too vibrato? I don't like that. Even in music of the period—-Brahms and Schubert and Beethoven—I don't like it to be so purple. It's beautiful enough. You don't have to beautify it. It's plangent and dolorous. The automatic slowing down at the end of a phrase doesn't make music more beautiful. You can just do ba-boom and it's over. That, to me, is more interesting. Otherwise you hear everything coming; everything's on the way and it doesn't quite happen. And it's a little thing.

It tells you how to react.
Yeah. It tells you it's going to be beautiful. [Laughs] I don't like that. I like to find out on my own. And it's a small thing; I'm not against vibrato. I'm pretty open, believe it or not. I'm strict. But, see, I love a relationship with musicians. It's not like, Ooh Emanuel Ax is a big star, I'll do whatever he says. He doesn't want that. He could just make a record. That's one thing I like about my job. The music part is so fun and interesting.

But you still like the dance part?
Oh yeah, but that's what makes the dancing so good. That's why my dancers are so fabulous because they're in a—I hate to use the word—dialogue relationship with music. They're doing it. They understand it. It's not just "What do I do now" and "How can this look more gorgeous? Maybe if you played it more beautifully, I would look more fabulous." We don't do that. Well, we do a little bit.

Talk about the titles: first, Visitation.
Look it up! Visitation is not just a visit. Visitation often has a weird metaphysical reference, like an angel appears to you. So a visitation is more rare and special than just somebody dropping by. It's something that happens to you. And so, in this case, it's because there's a solo versus a group of people, but then I realized I'm not sure who's doing the visiting. I realized that after I started working on it. It's like, Oh, I thought it was going to be like this, but it might be like that. So the title remains mysterious.

What about Empire Garden?
It's pretty much the name of every Szechuan restaurant in the English-speaking world. Really. And it's pronounced very emphatically: Empire Garden!!! It has nothing to do with Mr. Ma being of Chinese extraction. It was a while ago that I thought, I would like to call a dance that someday, and then I was making up a dance and decided, Oh, I'll call it that.

What are some of your favorite titles for dances?
There's a whole set, from the past, titles with the word love in them. There are loads of them in my work. And there are just-the-facts titles—not a music title-title. I really like the title A Lake. For San Francisco, I made a piece called A Garden. It's like all of Edward Gorey's books were "The Adjective Noun." I love that.

Do you have a legacy project in place for your choreography?
We're working on it. I can't talk yet. We're considering things. It's not that far along. We knew about the Cunningham one long before it was announced. Of course, one dies. [Laughs] I don't know. We talk about that all the time and we're working on it and I have smart lawyers and Nancy [Umanoff, executive director of the Mark Morris Dance Group] is the greatest genius who ever lived, so something will happen. I was thinking of just leaving dancers to people I don't like very much and have them all fight for years like Balanchine did.

Did he not like them?
Oh, I don't know. It seemed like he didn't or he wouldn't have left this one to that one and that one to this one and then have them slug it out. I think it's kind of funny.

He did have a sense of humor.
Yeah. Unfortunately, since he died, his sense of humor died with him, because none of those dances are very funny anymore, I'll tell you that. They used to be kind of sexy and weird and funny.

You presented your Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare last May at the Rose Theater. Do you like the way your company looks there?
I thought Romeo & Juliet was so gorgeous there. The music is how I wanted it to be at the Rose Theater. I love that piece. I think it's the best thing I've ever done. I actually think it's ahead—I never think anything's ahead of its time. I think my Romeo & Juliet, in a few years, is going to seem like something else. I think it's advanced. And it's not what anybody expects it to be and it's not what people want it to be, so if one's reviewing it compared to [Kenneth] MacMillan—even in an interview with Joan Acocella for a preview in The New Yorker, she kept saying, "So at this part of the music in the MacMillan, this happens...." and I said, "Joan, I haven't seen it. I'm just going from the Prokofiev, Shakespeare, my research and some films. I didn't watch anybody's ballet and I hadn't seen the MacMillan except for the horrible balcony scene and the marching scary adults scene for 30 years." I'm not interested in that. Why would I base my dance on a dance by somebody else? That seems crazy to me. That's a very ballet thing to do. It's not an opera thing to do. In an opera, you do a new production. Nobody wants to see the same with slight variations. Who's interested in that, really? I love to see gorgeous ballets. Hooray. But really it's like my Sylvia, where I saw an old black-and-white dress-rehearsal film in the archives of the Royal Ballet of the Ashton [version]. Just little bits, without music. I thought, That's great, I love Ashton, but it wasn't my research, it was just a curiosity. I made it up. It had nothing to do with the Ashton except that it's the libretto and the music and now here's mine. It's not competition even. It's like, Here's this and now there's also this. Hooray! It's a better world that way.

So Romeo & Juliet was just what I wanted at the Rose Theater. Of course it's long, of course there are moments of full stasis and chaos. But it's not nothing. There are so many details. My dancers are so brilliant. Everybody in every crowd scene is a miracle. What isn't there to watch? [To] like [it] is different, but to register? Wow. So, anyway, the answer is I love that theater. I love the crew. It's a very expensive space to work—that's the problem, the union thing is really rough. But I love it, and it's a very comfortable house with really good sound and sight and the crew's wonderful and we're very comfortable there. I think it's perfect.

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