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Lauren Grant is a mere slip of a dancer—a 4'11" powerhouse who moves with a command and silky fluency perhaps never better captured than in Mark Morris's Mozart Dances. Raised in Highland Park, Illinois, Grant began dancing with the Mark Morris Dance Group in late 1996 as a snowflake and flower in The Hard Nut. Despite her small stature (which forced her to give up her first love, ballet), she has overcome the physical odds to become one of Morris's most featured dancers. Married to fellow company member David Leventhal, Grant, 32, performs next week in Mostly Mozart's much-welcome reprisal of Mozart Dances, a three-part stunner. Grant spoke to TONY about what it's like to be an integral part of Morris's golden team.
You graduated from NYU in 1996, the same year you started dancing with Mark Morris. How did you get a job so quickly?
Back then they had invitation-only auditions and the company called NYU to ask if they had anyone to send. I graduated in May and in December I auditioned to be a snowflake and a flower in The Hard Nut, and I got the job. They thought, Who is this wildly short person who's good? Let's try her. In January or February, they needed people for L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, and they didn't take me. I remember asking why and someone said, "You're just too short." He had never used anyone as short as me. I'm barely 4'11". I'm really short. I was sad about it, but then in March of 1997, Mark was making up Platee and they needed a few extra people. I was perfect because they needed little critters from the swamp and what better person than a 4'11" froglike creature to play a toad? I was also a philosopher, which was hysterical—I looked like a little old man with a fake beard. I got to work with him for months; he got to know me, and I took his class, and he yelled at me everyday. I got to go on tour. Then in March of '98, they were doing L'Allegro in New Zealand. [Laughs] Apparently, I was tall enough by then so I did that. It was the first time I got to really dance and look like one of them. I wasn't in a philosopher costume or a toad costume, I wasn't in a flower or snowflake costume. I was in a dress doing technical dancing and I think they saw that and realized, "We can do this. We can use this person even though she's the shortest thing we've ever seen." [Laughs]
Did you have to unlearn a lot of your training when you worked on Platee?
Yeah. You know, I teach a lot now, and it's so difficult because there isn't really a technique, but there's a way that you approach dancing and acting and music that is very specifically Mark. That is exactly what he tried to teach me. There was so much acting in Platee, and that was what I was yelled at about. He wanted very realistic acting. There's this part I'll never forget: As the three Graces, we each fall. I was falling in a way so that I wouldn't hurt myself. Mark wanted me to fall for real and it hurt every time. He doesn't want the fake thing happening onstage. He thinks that is funnier and he doesn't want you to comment so much on it, like, "Oops, I fell! Isn't that funny, audience?" I'm still learning from him. Every day we take class, he works on those things: how we approach movement—we take ballet class every day. Musically, we always have to finish the combinations on time. Which gets irritating.
Let's say something ends with a little balance: You want to balance until you find it, so that ankle, that foot and all the muscles are engaged. But when the music ends with Mark, you end in fifth, arms down, done. That's the whole approach to the work. The work is dancing in the way that he prescribes to the music, not using your own idea of musicality. And that's fine because he illuminates the score. You need to learn how to obey his vision. [Laughs] So, yes, it can be frustrating, but I understand exactly why he does it. Sometimes when you're around for a long time, you feel like, Okay I've learned the lesson. Can I just balance?
How close is your natural musicality to his?
I think I've always paid attention to timing and I've always liked to be rhythmic. The music helped fuel me when I was dancing as a little bunhead. I feel like I respond to rhythm so it's not hard for me just to note it in Mark's way. But the thing about the part I have in Mozart Dances is that I had a little bit of choice. It was really challenging in a wonderful way when he choreographed it because it happened very fast. I got to play around a little bit just with the nuance or the quality of the step. Not a lot. [Laughs]
What will he say after a show?
If something's good, he doesn't usually say anything. If he sees something that's not part of his vision, he'll say something. We just did it in London. It could be something simple like, "When you kick your legs, I want your arms to go down. Don't take time with the arms." Or there's this difficult turning move with an extension at the end. He said, "I want that to be explosive at the end," which, oh my God, I'm still working out. I don't know if I can manifest that correction. It's probably one of my hardest moves. So he'll see somewhere that he wants a little something. I love that. I like to keep working on things. I don't even know if I could stick around this long if I didn't look at class the way I look at class, but every class is a chance to grow. Every tendu and every pli—I like trying something new. After this many years you just want to kill yourself, and that's why this is working out for me. Mark likes to look at it that way too, and if you resent that, you're going to be an unhappy person. I think for a few years I was a little bit. I was very frustrated in class. Starting Pilates helped a lot.
Photograph: Stephanie Berger/MMDG
Mark's had a lot of Pilates; he has a really great sense of placement. Dancers don't learn that. When dancers come to his class new, he has a lot to work on. For me, he said things like, "Stand up!" And for many years, I didn't understand what that meant. When I finally went to Pilates, I realized there was a whole new way I could stand and walk that I never knew before. I still take Pilates and go to Mark's class and it's just a constant exploration for me on how to do things with more efficiency. I get injured less and I feel better and Mark's happier, I think. It helps me dance differently.
How did Mozart Dances come about?
It's funny. We knew there was this Mozart thing looming. Before that, I had gotten some nice semifeatured roles. That means an extra minute in a dance. It's tiny, but if he wants to use you for one second alone on stage you feel he doesn't hate you. I thought, That must be it for my career. Now I'm going to just be corps—he's done using me. In a way I was sort of dreading the Mozart rehearsals. Anyway, he starts choreographing, and the first thing I do is come out facing back and I look at the audience and I do four measures of music and leave. He did that with me one day and I was so excited. I was like, Oh my God, I have four bars of myself in the Mozart! That was more than enough for me. And then it kept going. [Laughs] It was so funny how it unfolded. Every day, my jaw would drop farther down. I kept realizing more and more, This is kind of a nice part. It was unexpected but very welcome and a wonderful challenge because it's very dancey. I have a nice part in The Hard Nut, but I'm playing a little girl, and it's just a lot of running and glissades and arabesques; in this, I can employ my artistry as an older woman.
Did he rehearse with you alone?
Yes. It was thrilling. We kept laughing together. I will say this about myself: I'm a very quick learner with movement. I wish I was as quick with history. With history, I have to look at the text three times to get it in my head. With movement, it's pretty instant and sometimes I get a little bored. I wish I had more rehearsals where something was thrown at me and I could have that feeling of when I was young and auditioning and my adrenaline was going. This threw me right back to that place. He was like, "Do this, this, this, this," and I could barely remember everything. I worked on it constantly, and it was exciting.
Did you know it would be a great work?
I feel like we never know what anything is, but at a certain point I knew. He worked with the men for a week while the women were on vacation and then he worked with the women for a week. When I came in to see what he had done with the men...God. I had such a reaction to watching some of the dance. It was like being on a roller coaster. My heart was jumping. Even now when I watch Double, which is the men's dance, I think the third movement is one of the best pieces I've ever seen. I can't really see the women's dance, but I have a sense of it and how it's all connected. It's amazing.
From Old Seville, which is mainly a duet for you and Morris, was also a big deal, right?
It was huge. I don't know what Mark would say, but it feels a little bit like a turning point. I don't think he really had me in mind—unless it was a setup. One day, he said, "Who plays the castanets?" I play the castanets.
Where did you learn?
At dance camp where I had every kind of dance under the sun—even my first taste of modern, although I was so not ready for it. What I took to were the flamenco classes. I'll never forget camp shopping; we found little plastic castanets for a little hand, and I loved that class so much. The old Spanish man who was the teacher loved me and he let me dance with him as his partner. Once you learn, you don't really forget. So I anyway, I raised my hand and was instantly Mark's partner in this dance. It was 2001; we did it for Richard Move's Martha @ Town Hall. I feel, at least for myself, that it's gotten a lot better recently.
BEST IN SHOW Lauren Grant strikes a pose in Mozart Dances.
Photograph: Stephanie Berger/MMDG
I felt freer to play a little bit more. I also got a better costume. In 2001, I was still pretty young—but I got up there and I looked in his eye and I wasn't scared. I remember that. There's a lot of very close looking and I feel like just being able to do that maybe said something to him: I'm not afraid. I feel that was good for me to show him that—and the height difference was funny. I think he's always utilized my comedic potential just because of my packaging. And he worked with me with the castanets—he's incredible. I got a little bit better. I use the same plastic castanets.
Yeah. He loved that. He thought it was funny: the little plastic clink they make. My parents went to Spain a year ago and I said, "Mom, please bring me back real wooden castanets," and she did and now the piece is probably retired. I never got my chance to use my real castanets.
Oh no! It's really retired?
/Officially? I'm not sure, but I don't think Mark has much interest in it anymore. We did it everywhere. It's sad for me, too. I could do that every day.
Originally, the task was that you and Mark had to drink an entire bottle of wine during the piece. Is that still true?
For Richard Move's performances, Mark insisted that we drink the wine. I remember in London, I did get really drunk during the piece. When Mark spun me out for the bow I kind of stumbled. But he loves that. He loves to torture us, and it's funny—at my expense, of course. Later, when we did it on tour, we made a concoction of juice—except once during a big tour of England in the fall of '05. It was a six-week tour; that's a long time to be in the U.K.—Mark and I did it in so many towns and in the last town, John Heginbotham, who plays the bartender in the dance, said to me, "I'm going to use real wine. Is that okay with you?" I had to do a lot of dancing after that in the show, but at that point in the tour, I was like, "Do it. Bring it on." Mark didn't know. He poured a really full glass for Mark; I think the shtick he was doing in those shows was to down the first glass. So he does that, and the wine surprises him; he had to explain it to the audience in a funny way, so he did a shtick like, Oh, this wine's no good. He was startled. This is right before the music starts. We put our glasses down. I walk out to center stage and am trying so hard not to laugh. Mark comes out and we look at each other, we're about to start dancing, and he says, "I'm going to fucking kill you." [Laughs] But kind of with a smile on his face. It was so much fun. I think we all needed that. And Grand Duo was never better for me. I was very calm. There's this part in the dance where you have to stand on one leg and usually I doubt myself and start to wobble, but I was very calm and perfectly on my leg.
What would your career had been like if you hadn't discovered Morris?
I feel like in my whole life, all these little things have been bashert, which is a Yiddish word for "meant to be." I wasn't originally on the Mark Morris track; earlier, I was on the Paul Taylor track, and I studied there and I wanted to be in that company. I had encouragement and then this happened and it was bashert. Mark has challenged me to dance as though I'm not 4'11", and he's allowed me to utilize all of my past training: castanets, character work, acting and ballet. When we go to Tanglewood, we have an exchange where we get to sing and the musicians get to dance. It's not for a formal audience but I recently got to practice singing. Maybe that would have happened elsewhere. [Quickly] I doubt it. And Mark has shaped who I am as a person. He's challenged me in how I speak and in what I do: He's a very curious, knowledgeable person and he's helped to guide me to be more curious and knowledgeable. To read more and to be interested in a world where there's more than just dance. Because I really did have blinders on growing up, as bunheads sometimes do.
How do you mean "change how you speak?"
[Laughs] There's a lot of hazing that goes on. Little things like if you're in class or in rehearsal and you say, "Can I ask a question?" He'll say, "You just did." Or if you start everything with, "Um...." He points these little habits out. He makes you notice those things, and if you care you start to change the way you speak. Sometimes it's very demoralizing and upsetting, but it can be helpful. He's brutally honest. But he wants us to grow as dancers and as people. He likes to be a mentor. He wants to have interesting, intelligent people in his company because he needs someone to be interesting to him.