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

  • Photograph: Hilary Scott

    Julie Worden and Craig Biesecker in Empire Garden

  • Photograph: Hilary Scott

    John Heginbotham in Visitation

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

  • Costume sketches for Visitation by Elizabeth Kurtzman

Photograph: Robbie Jack

FLYING HIGH The MMDG performs the glorious V

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.

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