Mark Morris dancer Stacy Martorana talks about her career

Stacy Martorana talks about joining the Mark Morris Dance Group

Stacy Martorana,  Mark Morris Dance Company

Stacy Martorana, Mark Morris Dance Company Photograph: Nir Arieli

Stacy Martorana, a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, performs with the company at the Mark Morris Dance Center April 3 to 14. In conjunction with the season, which includes three works and an appearance by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martorana graces the premiere of Crosswalk. Stacy Martorana talks about her new role in the company and her former life as a RUG with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Stacy Martorana is a fresh face at the Mark Morris Dance Group, but for Merce Cunningham fans, she is a living example of being in the right place at the wrong time. Among the last dancers to work with Cunningham as a member of the esteemed Repertory Understudy Group, Martorana, 29, is now gracing Morris’s company where, among other things, she’s learning how to dance to music. (That was never Cunningham’s thing.) For the company’s season, which runs through April 14 at the Mark Morris Dance Center, Martorana performs in the choreographer’s new Crosswalk, set to music by Carl Maria von Weber. During the interview, Morris came in and planted a kiss on her cheek. “See how we get along?” he says. He added under his breath, “Don’t bite your nails in front of the press. Don’t lie. But also don’t tell the truth.” But she didn’t have to play games. You can tell she’s never been happier. 

Time Out New York: Why did you start dancing?
Stacy Martorana:
My mom signed me up for classes when I was about six. I went through one year of dancing, and then I decided I didn’t want to dance anymore. I just wanted to play sports with my friends. When I was in third grade, I decided to start up again. My mom put me into classes at the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore. I guess I liked it.

Time Out New York: Was the focus ballet?
Stacy Martorana:
Yes. I didn’t start modern until I was in middle school. But the more I took it, the more I loved it. In middle school, Carol Bartlett taught modern classes. It would be something like two ballet classes a week and maybe one modern. And eventually one of the wonderful things was a program that you had to be invited into; it actually terrified me because it involved my first experience with improvisation. We would collaborate with musicians and vocalists and create pieces, and it was horrifying but wonderful.

Time Out New York: Why was it horrifying?
Stacy Martorana:
Oh gosh, you know when you start just doing ballet, you’re told what to do—to make up my own movements was scary. It was a vulnerable feeling. I was a pretty self-conscious kid, like any teenager. I was very shy when I was young.

Time Out New York: How did you become a modern dancer?
Stacy Martorana:
I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts my first year of college as a ballet major. I was in level B-3—so the second lowest out of four. We didn’t get Melissa Hayden, but I did have wonderful teachers. Nina Danilova, I loved. She respected movers rather than [dancers] having perfect facility, which I did not have. So I went through the whole year as a ballet major. We had to take modern classes as well, and I really loved modern, but I didn’t think I could do it. I thought it was too creative. There were too many different kinds of movements that I wasn’t used to, and it scared me.

Time Out New York: Modern is such a huge umbrella. What were you studying exactly?
Stacy Martorana:
We had Brenda Daniels teaching Cunningham-based technique. That actually felt, at the time, the most comfortable. And Dianne Markham was teaching a Nikolais-based technique. Sean Sullivan was teaching Limón.

Time Out New York: So it was kind of all over the place.
Stacy Martorana:
It was. I remember mostly just seeing the performances of the modern students. There was one specific performance that I just thought, Wow, I wish I could do that. But I didn’t think I could. So I actually was going to come back the next year as a ballet major even though a couple of teachers had recommended that I come back as a modern major. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: How did that make you feel?
Stacy Martorana:
Oh, it felt awful! It felt like they were giving up on me or thought I should give up, when really that’s not what they meant. It was just switching focus. But I don’t remember feeling too sad; I just remember thinking, Well, I’ll show them. [Laughs] I’ll show them that I can do this. I was a very hard worker. If I set my mind to something, I was going to do it. I was planning to go to the Washington Ballet School summer program, which I’d been to previously. But that summer I just started to feel really down and a little depressed, and I remember my mom sitting down and talking to me and saying, “Do you really want to do this?” I was like, Wow she’s acknowledging this before I even could—but no, maybe I don’t. And that summer was wonderful. I spent it just doing all kinds of different things that I never had the time for because I was taking ballet classes.

Time Out New York: What did you do?
Stacy Martorana:
Oh God. [Laughs] Okay, as a little kid, I loved to build things. My family had a joke that you could give me a cardboard box and masking tape and I’d be happy for hours. So this is actually kind of embarrassing now, but I built a huge dollhouse. I was in college so that’s why it’s a little embarrassing, but I cut the wood, I sawed it, I built teeny little furniture and spent hours down in the basement designing rooms, and it was so fun. And we called up North Carolina School of the Arts and asked them if I could return as a contemporary major, and they said yes. I did have to start over at year one. But it was okay. I wasn’t ready to jump a year. I didn’t know enough.

Time Out New York: Did you still find that you were drawn to the Cunningham technique?
Stacy Martorana:
Yeah. That and Limón actually. I just looked forward to those classes specifically. It felt fun. It was hard, but it felt free. It felt like I was flying. I remember that feeling of just pushing myself and sweating. It felt wonderful.

Time Out New York: With the Limón movement, was it hard to figure out how to relax into it?
Stacy Martorana:
Yes, oh my God. We had to take comp classes every Wednesday. I think it was two-and-a-half hours, which was long, but all of a sudden I loved making up movement and dances and specifically solos. I don’t know that I was good at it, but I immediately immersed myself in that outside of classes—just making up stuff all the time, getting to the studio at all different hours. And I think that helped me find some more creativity and other ways my body was able to move.

Time Out New York: Did you perform?
Stacy Martorana:
A little bit, not much. We weren’t chosen our first year to be in the big productions. But we did smaller performances. And I do remember that being…I’m always a nervous Nellie, but much less so in that first year of contemporary performances. Pointe used to scare me onstage with the lights.

Time Out New York: Are you still like that?
Stacy Martorana:
No. [Laughs] I’m not like I was. Oh God, you can ask my family; I wouldn’t let them talk to me the day of a show. I’m not anything close to the way I was in high school. I always get nervous, but I look forward to it. I can’t wait to perform.

Time Out New York: It’s weird that you didn’t quit because of it.
Stacy Martorana:
I know! I guess once I was onstage I was okay. It’s hard to look back. I did love performing. It was the beforehand, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to control any muscle in my body.

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