Q&A: Maile Okamura talks about dancing for Mark Morris

Maile Okamura of the Mark Morris Dance Group talks about the choreographer's newest opera production and more

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Maile Okamura performs with Mark Morris Dance Group

Maile Okamura performs with Mark Morris Dance Group Photo: Ken Friedman


Before the Mark Morris Dance Group graces Lincoln Center with Morris's new opera Acis and Galatea, longtime company member Maile Okamura offers an insider's perspective of the work. In addition, Okamura talks about costume design (she's designed many for friend John Heginbotham), the end of dance companies and the upside of concussions.

When Maile Okamura talks about Mark Morris’s newest opera production, Acis and Galatea, one idea keeps popping up: nakedness. Even though the dancers wear gorgeous Isaac Mizrahi floor-length chiffon dresses—the men are in the skirt version—Adrianne Lobel’s set design, based on her paintings, is uncluttered. “Acis has a very open feeling,” Okamura says. “It’s also very vulnerable. You can’t hide behind the big staircase or the huge tree—it’s all singing and dancing.” Okamura, a ballet dancer before becoming a treasured member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, shares her thoughts about performing alongside singers and costume design—which is practically her second career. Look for her sartorial creations in Morris’s upcoming Fall for Dance premiere.

What can you tell me about Acis? What was the process?
It’s still very new. We premiered it in Berkeley and then did it in Boston, but I feel like it’s still finding its legs. It’s a piece that Mark has been wanting to do for years and years. Acis has probably been in his mind for decades. Originally Marty Pakledinaz was going to do the costumes; unfortunately he passed away [in 2012]. Isaac Mizrahi did the costumes and Adrianne Lobel, who has been working with Mark since the beginning of time and who did the sets for L’Allegro [il Penseroso ed il Moderato] and The Hard Nut, is doing the scenic design. It’s a huge operation. They know each other so well, and I think that’s interesting. It’s an opera with no sets, and it’s danced through. Dance is not a secondary element: It’s really a dance from beginning to end.

Does it feel different than Mark’s other operas?
I would say this one really has a lot of full, rich dancing in it and, of course, the singers are incorporated onstage. Mark has been working in this way for a long time—in Platée and King Arthur. Also, since we’ve been going to Tanglewood, he’s been working with singers every year—either staging a small opera or trying to access their movement capabilities as performers. This was an extension of that, and it’s very bare in a way because it’s just Adrianne’s scrims and the singers and the dancers and that’s it. 

Did they talk about minimal quality?
That’s something I’ve noticed that is extremely different from other operas that Mark has done. King Arthur and Platée have such wonderful, imaginative sets, and it’s part of the fun, I suppose, of an opera in contrast to a concert dance that we put on in a repertory show. This one doesn’t rely on that, and I feel like that was a challenge that they set for themselves even though I didn’t hear that from their mouths.

It seems that’s the way Mark’s work is going in general.
Yeah. He wants to expose things.

And strip away?
Definitely—strip away decoration, fanciness, artifice to see what you’re left with. I think it’s just amazing. So the elements, Adrianne’s scrims and the costumes are developed along the same line. They come from her paintings; the scrims are comprised of layers of her paintings. They’re landscapes. It’s almost like on Photoshop where you can make layers: She pulled out several layers of a painting so that there are bare areas and colors and shapes. The scene is abstracted and then parts of the painting, on top of being layered, were actually cut out with scissors, so they have holes that become entrances for us.

Does it give the stage depth?
Yeah. There are two main scrims in each act, and then there’s an additional layering of one scrim right against another. Isaac’s costumes are printed with details of Adrianne’s paintings. So it’s like we’re in a forest glen. It’s very singular in its design. The men wear floor-length skirts and the women wear floor-length dresses—very fine, delicate chiffon, and they’re very full. There are godets that make the bottoms billow out, so they definitely have a stage effect. The costumes themselves have their own lightness and buoyancy. They’re beautiful.

What kind of challenge does it present to perform with the singers onstage?
It’s amazing. You can feel their vibrations. It makes you shake. You’re standing there, holding their hand, and they’re singing the most gorgeous aria right directly into your ear at full volume. One of the special and difficult things is that Mark requires the singers and dancers to behave as one unit, and his approach is very direct for any performer. You are yourself. He doesn’t like it when people are veiled behind the mask of drama or the quotation marks of “I’m a dancer” or “I’m a singer.”

What about the choreography?
There are some beautiful love duets. Act I is all about love. The dancers play the lovers, the scenery, the birds and the environment, so it’s an interesting combination of beautiful set choreography and scenes that are more improvised, say, generating a mood or an effect like the waves crashing. It’s not a dance; it’s just the ocean. We’re the ocean. And each scene changes. Sometimes we’re in quartets, and I feel like we’re echoing the characters of the singers. Sometimes we’re in trios. In one beautiful scene after Acis is killed and turned into a river, we become the river. That’s a particularly beautiful dance that is actually semi-improvised. Mark made up some very short phrases or just bits of movement and each dancer has a partner, and they mirror those short phrases in whatever order or tempo they want so it’s always changing. It probably looks like something that took years to choreograph, but it will change every night. That’s something that people won’t be able to notice if they come once, but it has the desired effect: the “bubbling fountain” in the text. That’s one thing that’s so interesting about Mark’s choreographic process. It combines very strict choreography with very loose improvisational structures. There’s actually a lot of freedom in some of the sections, which he wants. He wants it to just change and be fresh and look alive and not stale.

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