Amber Star Merkens talks about her career with the Mark Morris Dance Group and her dual role in the choreographer's masterpiece Dido and Aeneas, which will be at the Rose Theater as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival beginning August 22. Amber Star Merkens, a Juilliard graduate originally from Oregon, has danced with the company since 2001; in this extensive interview, she discusses how she got to New York and Juilliard, the thrill of dancing for Mark Morris (including her terrific turn as Mercutio); and how being a mother has inspired her dancing.
When she was growing up in Newport, Oregon, dance was always front and center in Amber Star Merkens’s life. Her mother, Nancy Mittleman, still runs a dance school there; one of Merkens’s earliest memories was of being “jostled around in her arms while she was teaching.” A member of the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2001, Merkens is an exceptional presence, and not just because of her height (which is 5’9”, for the record). At once bold and delicate, she commands the stage in numerous dances, from the recent A Choral Fantasy—a thrilling work in which she leads a squad of dancers—to her gender-bending turn as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare. Now, in the choreographer’s dance adaptation of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, Merkens will perform the dual role of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Sorceress, who plots her demise. Originally, both parts were danced by Morris himself; Merkens makes them her own at the Rose Theater beginning Wednesday 22.
Time Out New York: How did you discover dance?
Amber Star Merkens: My mom is a dance teacher, and she would take me with her to teach. When I was very young, she taught adults. I think she said once that she was scared to teach kids, but when I was about three years old, as the story goes, I insisted that she teach my friends and me. [Laughs] She started classes for kids, and it turns out she’s amazing at teaching kids.
Time Out New York: What is your mother’s dance background?
Amber Star Merkens: She’s from New York and studied mostly Graham and Limón techniques. She teaches modern dance to kids, which is kind of unusual, and also choreography and improvisation. I didn’t know how unusual her school was until coming to college and realizing that most people discover modern dance in college.
Time Out New York: And you attended Juilliard?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes. Juilliard was sort of my ballet intensive. [Laughs] [My mother] taught ballet, but it wasn’t the hard-core ballet that a lot of kids experience. At Juilliard, my teachers made me focus on ballet technique, and I actually really enjoyed it. I had Benjamin Harkarvy and Andra Corvino, who were amazing teachers.
Time Out New York: How important was Harkarvy to you?
Amber Star Merkens: He was a great mentor. The way I came to Juilliard was accidental, almost. I wasn’t really planning on going to school for dance, and I took a class from Linda Kent at Oregon Ballet Theatre one summer—just dropped in on it. She said, “Are you auditioning for Juilliard? Why not? Come to New York.” I was kind of blown away.
Time Out New York: Were you thinking of dance as a career at that point?
Amber Star Merkens: No. Partially because I’m from a small town, I assumed that I wasn’t good enough, or that I couldn’t compete in that world. I hadn’t come from a competitive background of dance, and that was a little off-putting to me. I was thinking of [going into] physical therapy; I was actually excited to go to college for something else. But then I auditioned for dance schools. I thought, Okay, I should do it while I can.
Time Out New York: Where else did you audition?
Amber Star Merkens: CalArts, Cornish [College of the Arts] and Purchase [College].
Time Out New York: Did you get into all of them?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes.
Time Out New York: Did you realize that you were a decent dancer at those auditions? How easily did you fit in with the others as far your as your technique was concerned?
Amber Star Merkens: I realized that I had a lot of performing experience and that I had a little less fear about that than other people. Not that I wasn’t nervous, but a lot of kids grow up mostly just doing the end-of-the–year recital and don’t get a chance to really explore performance, and I grew up doing tons of performing. My mom gave us a lot of opportunities, and also, I was doing theater; my parents started a theater company before I was born. I grew up basically sleeping in the theater. [Laughs] It was a very comfortable environment, so I realized I had that going for me. I was intimidated by other people’s technique, but I’m a quick learner, so I just went full-force and tried to catch up.
Time Out New York: What kind of performing opportunities did you have in Oregon?
Amber Star Merkens: We did all kinds of things. When I was about ten, my mother started a company for ten-year-olds through adults, and we created works together. We sometimes brought in other people to set things on us from Portland or Eugene. She had us performing site-specific pieces at the aquarium and at the beach, and she choreographed for some of the plays that I was in. It was part of life; we were always working on something. I’ve never been to Bali, but sometimes when Mark has described how dance is very integrated into their culture and what they do on a daily basis, I almost feel like that was in a way similar to how I grew up. Dance was just always there. Also, in that way, I don’t remember choosing to dance. Apparently, I did when I was three, but I just feel like I remember it being there and just doing it, because it was what I knew.
Time Out New York: Was the studio in your house?
Amber Star Merkens: No. Now she has a studio connected to her house, but it was in a community center.
Time Out New York: Is it like Bunheads? Do you watch that show?
Amber Star Merkens: No! [Laughs]
Time Out New York: It’s so good.
Amber Star Merkens: I never would have expected somebody to say that.
Time Out New York: I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Morris’s name was mentioned in the next episode. Kelly Bishop plays the dance teacher; she was an original cast member of A Chorus Line. Anyway, I’m probably wrong, but that’s my fantasy of your upbringing.
Amber Star Merkens: I grew up in a town of 10,000 people that was kind of unusual. There were three dance schools—a ballet school, a jazz-competition [school] and my mom’s modern-creative dance [studio]—and two theater companies. It’s the kind of place where a bunch of hippies came in the ’70s and started a big arts community; a lot of people from L.A. and New York, actually, trying to get away from the city and make their own thing. It’s a spectacular, unusual place, and there’s very high-quality stuff being produced there. And it’s on the coast, so it’s kind of idyllic.
Time Out New York: Why did you decide to attend Juilliard? Was it because of the school’s reputation, or because you wanted to live in New York City?
Amber Star Merkens: It was mostly those things: the reputation, living in New York City, being exposed to people, connections to companies. I got into Cornish with a full ride, and I felt bad that I had to turn that down [in favor of Juilliard]; it just seemed obvious that I needed to be in New York if I was going to go for it. People would say, “You got into Juilliard, and you wouldn’t go? You’re crazy!” I was kind of naive; I didn’t know a lot about the school or the dance world. I had seen Ailey and some bigger companies that had come through Portland; we took trips up there to see them. But I was coming from a small town. I auditioned with one of my solos I choreographed, and the other was a solo from an Ailey piece that I didn’t have the rights to. [Laughs] But I didn’t know better; I just learned it off of a video.
Time Out New York: Which one?
Amber Star Merkens: It was from [Donald McKayle’s] Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder. They took me aside and asked, “Who taught you that?” I said, “My teacher,” but I pretty much learned it off of a video; they forgave me and accepted me.
Time Out New York: You said that was sort of your crash-course in ballet. How exactly?
Amber Star Merkens: I knew basics. At the time, Ben [Harkarvy] had a strong philosophy [that dancers should be] well-versed and able to move seamlessly between styles—he didn’t want to see dancers more heavily trained in one area. The Corvino classes changed my life, and I’ve taken that [knowledge] with me. Very anatomically sound. It was nice to learn [ballet] in that way, rather than to have many affectations to get rid of. I feel very grateful to have had that experience. Ben’s classes were that way too, though I didn’t have him until later. And Mark’s ballet classes are very square. They set you up for a pure style of movement, which I like.
Time Out New York: Have Mark’s ballet classes always been that way?
Amber Star Merkens: Mostly, since I’ve been in the company. But he’s gotten more and more that way—cutting out extras. I know he’s doing that in his choreography as well, and it’s really interesting.
Time Out New York: How did you discover the Mark Morris Dance Group? Did you see performances?
Amber Star Merkens: I saw one performance at BAM when I was at Juilliard. I think I was more stuck in the aesthetic of the school at the time—it still is kind of like this, but there was an interest in contemporary ballet, [the work of Jiri] Kylian and European, conceptual sort of [choreography]. I was very much into Pina Bausch. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I don’t remember having a strong reaction to Mark’s work at that time. Then I saw L’Allegro, [il Penseroso ed il Moderato] and was just blown away, as so many people are. It felt like a transformative experience. I auditioned not long after seeing that, so I didn’t have a lot of experience seeing Mark’s work before I joined the company. I fell in love with L’Allegro, and I fell in love with Mark immediately; and then the work came.
Time Out New York: How did you meet Mark?
Amber Star Merkens: I met him at the audition. But I did meet him before through [former MMDG member] Brady [McDonald]. I lived with Brady—we were in Limón together and at Juilliard. He’s one of my dearest friends. He took me to a gala where I saw L’Allegro and made a whole outfit for me. [Laughs] With shoes and bag included—I was a Bradon McDonald creation from head to toe. Mark probably doesn’t remember that. He claims that he doesn’t remember seeing me at the audition, but other people in the company kept saying, “Did you see that girl?” I didn’t get hired from the audition, but then [MMDG executive director] Nancy [Umanoff] asked me to come take company class. At that time, Mark was mostly hiring people he knew through having worked with them as supplementary dancers; the group was such a group, such a family, that he was a little bit wary of hiring people that he didn’t know at all. So I took company class, and a few weeks after that, I was hired. In my first company class, I was in ecstasy. I was just so excited by Mark and his personality and his wit. Everything.
Time Out New York: What was that first class like?
Amber Star Merkens: It was funny. He was demonstrating things from the floor, like lying on the floor—ballet combinations. It was someone’s birthday; there were a lot of festivities. It was a little bit rowdy, and there were a lot of stories. There’s a lot of storytelling that goes on from Mark, and he encourages it in other people; that was a new atmosphere for me. I remember laughing the whole time and just finding him so funny, and being so amazed at the range of subjects that were covered. We weren’t just talking about dance. That’s what really engaged me from the beginning and still does. It’s a very expansive world within the working environment. It’s not limited to just dance—although, of course, there’s a lot of that.
Time Out New York: He doesn’t shut the larger world out.
Amber Star Merkens: He’s always talking about books that he’s read, performances that he’s seen. It’s stream-of-consciousness. And telling jokes, which I’m still terrible at. The art of telling a joke is important in the company. [Laughs] The people in the company were also from really diverse backgrounds, and it was really refreshing to me after being at Juilliard and then Limón, which is also a great place, but very focused in on the dance world. Sometimes, you can forget you’re a dancer with Mark; you’re just a person dancing. The people that he associates himself with and chooses for the company tend to be well-rounded and educated in different ways, and this makes for a really vibrant environment.
Time Out New York: Did you fit into his work right away? Did it feel natural to you?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes, I think so. Looking back on it, I feel like I’ve come a long way with his work. I understand it more, of course, now than I did then. There was a certain ease that I had with it; but a big thing that I didn’t have at first—which a lot of people don’t have—is figuring out the energy level that’s required. It’s more subtle than you think and more varied, and any young dancer is going to come into it with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Some things don’t call for that, necessarily. You find the places where it does, and then there’s much more range. When I joined the company, I was really lucky that Mark was still dancing and performing; I learned so much from watching him. He’s the most incredible performer in the world. That really helped me with his work. I was also joining at a time when there were a lot of people in the company who had been there for a long time. I could soak it up. They were all very welcoming for the most part, too. Recently, a lot of people joined at the same time, and I feel like it must be hard for them. We’ll remount a dance and at least half the cast, if not more, is new, and you don’t have all those people who have been doing it forever or can fit you in more seamlessly, and tell you or show you what to do.
Time Out New York: Is that the case with Dido and Aeneas?
Amber Star Merkens: I’m not sure how many new people are in it this time, but in general with the rep, it places more responsibility on the video, which is hard, and on Mark explaining things, which he doesn’t always want to do. He’s good at explaining things, but he doesn’t like to get bogged down in that. He wants to move faster.
Time Out New York: What did you remember watching him perform that made an impression?
Amber Star Merkens: Well, his solos: Peccadillos and Serenade—the one with the fan. Watching him do those was always amazing, because he would do them a little bit differently every time—and if he ever made a mistake, he would always repeat it to make it seem like it was part of the dance. If it was something that repeated, and he wobbled a little bit on a foot or he missed a step, when it came around he would do exactly the same thing again. He was so genius. I really remember him also in The Office. That was one of the only group pieces that he was in at the time, and he was just incredible. The way that he dances with other people is so honest and so present. We all got that from him. That’s something that’s special about this company—the way people are onstage together, looking directly in each other’s eyes. There’s just a real sense of community and trust. There can also be antics onstage and talking to each other onstage. Mark always says, “Don’t be afraid to talk to each other; don’t be afraid to tell somebody what to do if they’re new.” There’s a special camaraderie there, and he was like that onstage with people.
Time Out New York: What were some important dances for you early on?
Amber Star Merkens: I spent a lot of time doing V and Grand Duo at the beginning—which were great, and they were the closers. It was strange to come at the end of a program, when a lot of the other people had been dancing the whole program, and [I was] trying to match that energy. He choreographed Kolam—that was the first one I was there for, but All Fours was a significant piece in the beginning of my time at Mark Morris. It was very complicated. It has a different feeling from a lot of his other pieces; it was more challenging for me. It didn’t feel comfortable and organic for a while. It felt kind of like whiplash at first, but I loved it. It was so much its own world. A spooky world.
Time Out New York: What is your history with dancing Dido and Aeneas?
Amber Star Merkens: I was cast in it for the BAM season when Mark split the roles between Brady [who was playing the Sorceress] and me. When I first got the role, I was just Dido, so I really focused on researching her character. It’s a very interesting story of her husband being killed, and then she flees her husband’s brother who wants to marry her. She creates her kingdom and turns down many marriage proposals, kind of becoming the born-again virgin, stoic queen in order to have power and to retain power as a woman—suppressing all the emotion. Then the opera starts, and she falls in love. What ensues is her undoing, basically. That was really exciting for me. I didn’t necessarily feel like something was missing, but once I was performing both roles I felt like, Oh, this is the piece.
Time Out New York: What was the process like?
Amber Star Merkens: Before our first rehearsal, Brady and I learned the material from videos. Then we had a few rehearsals with Mark where he was clarifying things. He didn’t say a whole lot at first; he let us find it, which I found to be a huge honor. With me at the beginning, he said, “Do less, do less.” He says that with a lot of things, but I think he wanted the movement to speak for itself, especially at first; he didn’t want us adding a bunch of drama on top of it. Especially the stuff with Dido—it’s so difficult. The movement is all two-dimensional and much more engaged than he made it look. To try to get your body to fit between two panes of glass and to find the absolute profile without just being a little bit this way or a little bit that way. [She flattens herself in profile.] It has to be very direct.
Time Out New York: What’s challenging about dancing the Sorceress?
Amber Star Merkens: The challenge is the complete switch—so fast—and letting the boundaries between the parts of the personality dissolve enough to where it’s easily accessible. Also, I was very feminine at first in the role of the Sorceress. I think it was okay for Mark and Brady to do it that way, but something about that didn’t work for me. It became too sexy or something. I am a woman, so I don’t have to show that I’m a woman in any way. It almost works better for me to tap into a more masculine thing for the Sorceress. Mark said, “Try it more as a man.” When he said that, it grounded me in a different way, and it also made me—this sounds weird—able to be more mean and aggressive in a way that worked.
Time Out New York: Because you removed yourself even more thoroughly?
Amber Star Merkens: Yeah, right. It made it more different, physically, from Dido. But I do feel a little bit androgynous in the Dido role even though she’s very feminine.
Time Out New York: She’s strong.
Amber Star Merkens: She has that strength. I mean, the whole thing definitely requires strength of presence. When Mark told me to play the Sorceress as a man, that device was used as a way to find a physicality and attack that differed from Dido. I’m not actually trying to perform the role as a man. It was a means to an end. Using the masculine image in the early rehearsals really helped me to feel larger, more grounded, and somehow made it easier to convey fire and hatred. Now that I’ve found that physically, I can depart from the literal idea.
Time Out New York: How do you get through it?
Amber Star Merkens: That, I don’t know. [Laughs] It is like a roller-coaster ride. It really is being like carried along by the music; it’s so compact that there isn’t time to ask yourself, How am I getting through? Everything is very immediate. I basically feel like I’m also singing the role, which is thrilling for me. We perform with the most amazing singers in the world, and it’s the way they’re standing in the pit. It almost feels like the music is coming up through me. I feel like the dance is a conversation. There’s a language created with the movement. It doesn’t feel like things are being represented. It feels like you’re singing what you’re saying. It definitely takes time to figure out the energetic arc. How much do you come back down from the Sorceress, who is going mad and is totally wild, without any kind of boundaries? Dido is all about the boundaries. How you get through it? [Laughs] You start, and then you’re on the other side.
Time Out New York: Is this the most challenging part you’ve ever danced?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes. Except that I feel very comfortable in theatrical roles, so in that way it’s not, because I definitely feel having a character makes things easier for me than just dancing as myself. In that way, it’s challenging in a way that I love.
Time Out New York: Do you wear sarongs in rehearsals?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes, we never rehearse it without sarongs, because there are a lot of things that are done with the sarong and ways that you have to hold it and grip it that are very specific, and it’s just impossible…
Time Out New York: …to fake it?
Amber Star Merkens: Yeah. [Working with the] bench is probably another thing that was a challenging part of the process—figuring out how to use it, how to sit on it right, how to be in the right relationship to it. It’s very set and specific. There’s nothing extra. It just feels like it’s all there.
Time Out New York: There is no excess, and in that way it reminds me of more recent works, like Socrates.
Amber Star Merkens: He amazingly distilled it to the perfect amount. It’s spectacular. I’m always just in awe of the piece as a whole. What a masterpiece.
Time Out New York: Please tell me about Mercutio, a part I thought you were great in.
Amber Star Merkens: [Laughs] It was so fun. Probably the best time I had in rehearsal was creating the death scene with Mark. It was a very good experience. Having the masculine thing as the Sorceress, being a man in that, freed me up in a way, and finding a whole different center and a different initiation for all my movement was really exciting. It was really great to work with Julie [Worden, who played Tybalt]. It was really fun to dance together. She’s a very intense and present performer; it was easy to be in the moment with her. It was funny with the Mercutio thing; I felt like my brother. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: I was wondering if you modeled your performance on anyone.
Amber Star Merkens: I didn’t model it on him, it just came out more and more strongly as a sense of my brother, which was funny. That’s actually the first thing that my mom said when she saw the show. Finding the character is really interesting to me. Letting myself go and channeling that and getting out of the way for that is great—and then also creating that world with the other dancers. I just feel like when we do those character roles, there’s a whole different relationship created within the company, and that’s really interesting.
Time Out New York: And how does that affect a role like the one you dance in A Choral Fantasy, where you really command the stage? Did one affect the other?
Amber Star Merkens: I’m sure they did subconsciously, maybe; or it’s just like how living and having experiences affect who you are, but you can’t tell why or how. Other people can maybe see it, but when you’re in it, it’s hard to tell. I think, personally, more recent [performances] are more affected by my experience of dancing and being a mom more than anything else. That really changed things for me.
Time Out New York: When did you have your child?
Amber Star Merkens: 2009.
Time Out New York: I remember seeing you pregnant and thinking, I hope she doesn’t stop dancing. Was it always your plan to return to the company?
Amber Star Merkens: No. I figured when I decided to have a family that I would stop dancing, but it happened—and it happened unexpectedly—and I, very unexpectedly, wanted to dance more than ever. [Former MMDG member] June [Omura] had been an example of being able to do that and being able to bring her kids on tour—she had twins. She has probably the most energy of anyone in the world; I thought if she could do it with two, I could probably make it work with one. I took [my son] everywhere. I had family members on tour with me to help, so that made it possible, really. Mark and Nancy’s support has been unbelievable. I feel like that support isn’t there for most dancers, and I just feel so lucky to know how motherhood can feed your artistic life. Without all of that,I wouldn’t have known. It wasn’t just my decision: Will I come back or won’t I? It hinged on help from other people. Dancing also changed for me in so many ways. I’m always asking myself this question: Why did it become so much bigger and richer for me? I was really making a huge sacrifice also to not spend all my time with my son, which I would love to do. But choosing dance and realizing how important it was to me made it a different experience than doing it as before, which was just because it was part of my life and I was good at it. Of course, I enjoyed it, but it was not as much of a choice. I also think that being around a child who’s so curious and spontaneous, and being put in a situation of not knowing what you’re doing a lot of the time—and having to get out of your own way and give unconditionally—fed my dancing. It infused my dancing. It made the well deeper to draw from. I feel things that I never thought I had the capacity to feel. You don’t imagine that you can love in a certain way until that relationship comes up between mother and child. There are many things that have changed. Most of the time, even though it’s hard to balance everything, the two feed each other. I think I’m a better mom having dance in my life and performing still. That won’t go on forever.
Time Out New York: Will you have to make decisions about dancing as he gets older?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes, it’s a constant redefining of roles. I’m working a little bit differently within the company now, as he gets older. I’m not doing as many tours, because I just can’t make it work all the time, but that’s where Mark and Nancy have been so supportive in allowing me to redefine my role within the company. Mark is fascinating in a surprising way, but kind of not surprising, because he’s always surprising. [Laughs] It’s not surprising that he’s surprising. He can relate to me as a mom in a way that I didn’t expect him to, and he seems to be able to know certain things about the experience that I don’t know he knows or how he senses. That’s just one of those things about Mark: He seems to know a little bit about everything, somehow.
Time Out New York: Can you give me an example?
Amber Star Merkens: It’s little things here and there. But it’s like he knows. For instance, he gave me The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and told me to read one about a mother with her newborn, which is about the little moments of magnified delight and then the boredom of doing the same thing over and over again. He has also said things that made me feel like he has a sensitivity that a lot of people without kids don’t have.
Time Out New York: That’s the word: He is sensitive about so many things.
Amber Star Merkens: Yes. He’s ultra, ultra sensitive, and that’s what always comes through in his work and relationships—that he is able to portray them sensitively without being sentimental, and that’s what makes it so heartbreaking and beautiful. Our relationship has always been a pretty good one, and I’ve been able to talk to him about personal things, and he’s surprisingly sensitive to everything. I keep saying surprisingly, but he is in his charismatic world of Mark, and you don’t expect him to notice certain things that he notices.
Time Out New York: Can you talk about A Choral Fantasy or other more recent works? How do you see Mark shifting as a choreographer?
Amber Star Merkens: A Choral Fantasy—I wish we could do it more often. Because of the scope of the work and how many singers it requires, we’ve only done it a couple times. It still feels very new. It’s hard for me to talk about that piece. I’m sorry—it’s too fresh. I don’t know it as well.
Time Out New York: Do you think his work has become more pure and more distilled?
Amber Star Merkens: That’s always been in his work, but I think he wants to see it more. As you get older, you can start honing down and choosing more, so I think he’s doing that. He likes to give himself the challenge of seeing how much he can say with fewer and fewer tools; he gives himself fewer options. I think that challenge and puzzle is something that he’s really enjoying working on and seeing if he can do it. He’s always been about giving himself hurdles. In his solos—I’ve gotten to do Rondo and Ten Suggestions and Dido—basically, he wanted to make them impossible for himself. They’re really interesting roles, because he’s giving himself things that could trip him up or that he might not be able to achieve, and that makes it really exciting. One of the things he said to me about my work early on in the company was, “I want to feel scared that you’re going to fall down.” He likes being scared sometimes, and he likes risk. Now when he’s conducting, he likes being scared of it, and the adrenaline he gets from that.
Time Out New York: Did he conduct Dido before when you danced it?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes, it’s wonderful. It’s kind of like performing with him and having him in that world with me; it’s comforting, and it’s a source of energy. He knows [the music] inside and out. He’ll say, “Was that okay? I remember doing this that way.” He knows what it was like to dance the role—not that he’s necessarily going to do it the way I want him to do it. [Laughs] But it’s great; I love it.
Time Out New York: Does he watch you?
Amber Star Merkens: Yes. We have eye contact with anyone who’s conducting. He encourages that. He’s very much about not being separate from the musicians and noticing everybody else onstage—noticing the space.
Time Out New York: What does he tell you about noticing the audience? Does it depend on the dance?
Amber Star Merkens: He doesn’t talk about that—or at least very rarely. Except if someone seems very nervous or something, he’ll say, “If you don’t want thousands of people looking at you, then you shouldn’t be doing this.” [Laughs]
Mark Morris Dance Group is at the Rose Theater (at Frederick P. Rose Hall) Aug 22–25.