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Mark Morris

Three company members flesh out the choreographer's triple bill.

Photograph: Gene Schiavone
Mark Morris Dance Group, Socrates


Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Number of dancers: 7
Maile Okamura on Renard: "I'm not in this dance, but I assisted with the design of the costumes. Maira Kalman, whom I love, did the costumes, so I asked if I could intern on the project. What I can say about this is that, unlike other dances, he asked Maira to design the set and costumes, and she came in with all of her incredible ideas before he had started choreographing. Usually Mark is faced with a blank canvas on the first day and all of us staring at him. And this was different because there was a beautiful henhouse and there were living quarters for all the animals. There are four main animal characters: the goat, the cock—cock—the cat and the fox. And Mark added three hens that are not in the original score. They're the backup dancers--groupies. [Cracks up] They're hen groupies."

Renard extra with Okamura:

Have you designed costumes on your own before?
Actually, Mark had set this piece at Tanglewood two summers ago, just for singers, and he asked me to design the costumes for it then. When he did it for the company, he asked Maira Kalman to do the costumes. I do some costume stuff on the side—in recent times, for John Heginbotham and also when I danced with Neta Pulvermacher. It's a family thing. My grandmother and mother and all my aunts are incredible seamstresses. It trickled down a little bit.

Renard is based on Russian folktales. Mark's production is more of a theatrical piece than a dance, right?
It is. It has a story. It was originally done for the Ballets Russes, and it's nice that the Ballets Russes had such a history of working with artists on the sets and costumes. This piece has that feel. Maira sees the world in pictures and metaphors. Why couldn't an umbrella turn into a planter? Why shouldn't a ladder have huge red wheels on it and be a henhouse? And all these ideas were very easily incorporated into the dance. There's a picket fence, and she wanted holes in the fence, so that the hens could stick their heads out. That became one of the primary motifs of the dance, so it wasn't just a scrim that you hang. The whole set moves and it's very much a part of the dance.

What are the animals like?
It's funny: Mark has almost like a photographic imagination. He can re-create a goat in his mind in a second. So he just says, "Be a goat," and he can actually do that. It's not as easy for the rest of us. The hens, at some point, became "stupid," "smart" and "perfect." Perfect is always in the middle. Smarty-pants is always leading, and stupid is always last. Also, somehow being on the other side of it makes it easier to see what Mark is talking about when he's describing things or trying to get an idea across. When you're not the object, it's much easier to just have a clear mind and say, Oh! That's what he's talking about. It's so obvious. But you can't see it from the outside when you're inside of it.

Could you describe the costumes?
They are tights and T-shirts for the boy characters, who have their character spelled on the shirts—the front will say "CO" and the back will say "CK," so it adds to the nonsensicalness of it. When they're all facing front, it could be Russian, basically. It's sung in Russian. And then the ladies have '50s skirts with crinolines and they look like beautiful prep-school cheerleaders. There is an element, especially in the ears and tails, of found objects. The goats' ears are a part of thread spools and the cat has scrub brushes for ears. There's the junk-store, barnyard thing going on. It's junkyard chic.


Composer: Erik Satie
Three movements:
"Portrait de Socrate" ("Portrait of Socrates"), with text from Plato's Symposium; "Les bords de l'Ilissus" ("The banks of the Ilissus"), with text from Plato's Phaedrus; "Mort de Socrate" ("Death of Socrates"), with text from Plato's Phaedo
Number of dancers: 15
Noah Vinson on Socrates: "We started off looking at paintings by Jacques-Louis David; Mark used The Death of Socrates and other works for their architecture. We first started talking about space and feeling as if we were there, so we played on Greek ideas. At the beginning, we were feeding each other grapes and wine. But he used the Death of Socrates painting throughout the piece and the gestures in the third movement especially. There's always a group doing the rhythm part of it and a group telling the story. So there's not a Socrates character; all of us play him at certain points."

Socrates extra with Vinson:

Would you elaborate on the dancers' groupings?
There are five in each group, and the music is pretty stark. In terms of the group, each time there's a central person who's playing the Socrates character, the rest of the people are describing some idea that came from that painting. There's a moment when he's in the bath, so some dancers are down and other people are lying on them to create a bath scene and other people are feeding them wine. We make a cup of the poison a lot throughout it. [He cups both hands and holds them forward in demonstration.] There is stillness, but it's also very bright and vibrant. The colors, even though they are muted, came from that pigmenty color from the painting. So there's sort of a rusty red and yellow and blue, and every now and then a dancer can decide to wear a cape during the second movement.

What do you mean you can decide?
There are trios in that section, so there are threes of people going from right to left, and you can decide on one of the crosses: One person from each group can decide to put on the cape, and all the capes match the colors of the different trios.

How do you negotiate that?
We decided at the beginning the first time we did it, but we've only performed the dance a couple of times. I don't really like to mess with that. [Laughs] How would you talk about the tone of the movement for each section? The tone of the first movement is very set. The rhythm is very dry. And then the second movement, which kind of goes from right to left, obviously has a little bit more movement because the clothes start to move. We do 11 quick, little jumps across the stage in the second movement that I like. In the third movement, it's just broader and bigger and I think it helps the audience [to have] somebody always staying on top of the rhythm so you see it, but then you can glance over and watch a little section of people portraying the Socrates character or telling a little bit of the story in some way. They're a little like motifs. We all take turns doing the rhythm or the story.

Does it feel different to you in terms of Mark's work?
Yeah. It's definitely more open—and more open in his approach to putting it together because we started out playing around. Usually we listen to the music and start in with the movement right away, and here we talked about the story and he showed us paintings and we tried to get some of the gestures from them. There's the idea gesture from the painting [Socrates holds one finger up and the other hand is poised to the side as if it is resting on a surface.] We do Grecian lying on the ground, which is really nice: It's an out-in-the-open-air kind of feeling. It feels statuesque through a lot of it. It's alive, but there's an idea that everyone's very tall even when you go down to the ground. You're very long. It was just something that we got from seeing the paintings: All of the buildings were open at the time. I guess it's like you can feel the wind. And it feels very much like we're somewhere as opposed to in other dances where we're just on the stage, and it's more presentational.

Did you talk about that with the other dancers?
A little bit. We weren't exactly sure where he was going to go, and it didn't come together until the very end. I don't think anyone noticed just how beautiful it was going to be until then and everyone brought themselves into it a little bit more. At the beginning, he wanted us to get a sense of where we were. We were lying down and some people were pretending they were chatting. We were at long tables taking turns with these ideas of being outside with wine and platters of food. For a couple of weeks, we just played around or made little motifs and you had to pick a person within the painting. So we made the paintings live for a while and then he came up with some steps and we added the steps.

Festival Dance

Composer: Johann Nepomuk Hummel
Number of dancers: 12
Laurel Lynch on Festival Dance: "Mark started with the opening duet, so most of the material, especially from the first movement, comes from that duet. We worked with a partner for a long time, which is sort of unusual, because it hasn't really been since Mozart Dances that he's done a pairing-off that remains throughout the dance. I dance with Billy Smith [William Smith III]. It's interesting to get a chance to learn from one other person in addition to Mark and to figure out what works with that one person, because most of the time we're dancing as a big group. It was really fun, actually, and it was freeing to have somebody to dance with. [Laughs] And I'm five-foot-nine, so it's lovely having someone who's tall enough to dance with me."

Festival Dance extra with Lynch:

How would you describe Festival Dance?
It's very classical, but has a softness and a folk quality all at once. I think more than anything, there's a sort of romantic quality to it. It's sweet and youthful and romantic. And sort of balletic. There are homages to Balanchine it—the romantic qualities, but also the balletic qualities. There's a definite openness while also dancing with your partner.

Do you have much experience dancing with a partner like that?
More back in high school—balletic partnering, or where it feels a little more like ballroom dancing or ice dancing. I had done a few pas de deux and things like that in high school and I suppose that helped prepare me for this a little bit. It's certainly nicer not being on pointe. [Laughs] Then there is the more free-form modern-dance partnering that you do, which is more of a give-and-take rather than that more traditional supported work. But this is more like classical partnering, in some ways, than much of what Mark does. The roles are more traditional. [The men] have to do all the hoisting.

Could you talk about your role in it and how it developed?
Each couple had a chance to perform the duet at some point in the rehearsal process and then Mark chose who he wanted to do which seconds and things from that, and so I think because Billy and I are tall we ended up doing the lead couple in the second movement because we contrasted the most with everybody else in the piece.

What is your approach to musicality in this?
The music feels very simple to me, so it supports movement easily. It's structured in a way that you can kind of predict what's going to happen, so it is a little bit easier to move with; it allows me to move more fluently in some ways. But then, of course, the second movement is very slow and there's not a lot of movement in it. Trying to figure out ways to dance it when it is so quiet—the music is very simple and the movement is very simple. To try to make it breathe or be bigger than it is [is the challenge]. And the final movement—once again—is easily supported. The closing section is more of a group dance.

Did Mark talk about anything before he started?
He talked about the music a little bit: That it's postclassical pre-Romantic, so it's Mozart and Beethoven sort of blended together. You can catch elements of both. So maybe that's some of the movement. There are classical forms—there's lots of symmetries that are very classical-feeling, especially in the second and third movements, the second movement being all lines that come together or open up, and in the third movement everything is symmetrical from the side. So classical form, but I guess the movement is more of a Romantic, folk style.

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