Mark Morris Dance Group

The choreographer presents two premieres at Mostly Mozart.



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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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