Mark Morris Study Day

( The Dancing Times August 2000 p 973)

Zoe Anderson reports

The Study Day brought together a range of Morris collaborators in management, production, music and dance with discussions, a video session and an interview with Morris. I must declare an interest, since I introduced the videos before becoming a fascinated spectator at the various panels.

Alastair Macaulay opened with a lecture on Morris' choreography, a general introduction which included detailed interpretations of Dido and L 'Allegro (on both of which he has written for Dancing Times). This was followed by the video session and the first panel, which focused on working with Mark Morris. Val Bourne, Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella, described the company's first British appearances under the Umbrella in the 1980s, and subsequent battles to get them presented again in London. She also described her frustration with the state of dance in this country, at the sheer difficulty of getting recognition and performance space for even so wonderful a company as this. Nicholas Payne, General Director of ENO, described similar difficulties, admitting that the struggle to get Platée, Morris' Rameau opera, staged by the Royal Opera company, had nearly cost him his job at the ROH. He also described the negotiations over the current season, including work on Four Saints which he had seen nothing of, but which Morris had promised would be wonderful!

This part of the panel vividly communicated both the difficulties of setting up live performance, and the devotion and determination which finally makes it happen. Jane Glover, the conductor of these L'Allegro performances, and the filmmaker Nigel Wattis talked about the process of performance itself. Glover emphasised the fact that, in conducting L'Allegro, she was working with an existing production in which many of the musical decisions, including tempi, had already been taken. In doing so, she underlined her admiration for Morris' musical sense, pointing out that the tempi she inherited seemed entirely right for the score as well as for the dancing. Wattis, who is presently making a second film about the Dance Group, went to Brussels at least partly for the scandalous story of the company's controversial residence, and came away with a film about the beauties of L'Allegro. He told another story about Morris' musical precision: he objected, on seeing one filmed dance, that it was out of sync by, as it turned out, one twenty-fifth of a second. (As Alastair Macaulay pointed out, a similar story is told of Fred Astaire.) The panel concluded with a summary of the speakers' enthusiastic response to Morris, with Payne praising the breadth of his work as an almost eighteenth-century quality, taking in grace, intellectual vigour, coarseness and nobility.

The second panel featured three of Morris' dancers, Shawn Gannon, David Leventhal and June Omura, They explained how fast Morris works. Leventhal described coming from an unnamed choreographer who spent days or weeks on each phrase, to Morris' prolific and very speedy ways of working. Omura also gave an account of the harder elements of the work, which she called being ready when he needed her but not in his way while problems were sorted out. Alastair Macaulay asked if Morris was ever like Ashton. who would come into the studio with an idea "be a fountain, I dreamed a fountain" and asked his dancers to help him achieve it. The Morris dancers immediately agreed, even to the detail of having been fountains. All three described learning their steps through the music, through the rhythm and cadence of musical phrases. Omura explained that working for Morris had sharpened her existing sense of rhythm, for hearing beats within the beats of the music. The exception, apparently, has been Four Saints in Three Acts, which the dancers remembered as much from the words as from the music.

The last panel was with Barry Alterman and Nancy Umanoff, the General and Managing Directors of the Dance Group. Both have been vital parts of the company from the beginning, Barry persuading Morris to have a company and inviting Nancy to run it. In describing the early years of the Group, they showed both the ad hoc, informal development of the company and their absolute commitment to it. When Umanoff accepted the job, she asked what she would be paid and was told that, since she did the books, she should fix her own salary. Both then took great financial risks (including personal loans) to get the company going. Alterman, describing the early years, insisted that the risk would have been in not starting the company:
with so many dancers and choreographers dying of AIDS, they felt that nothing could be postponed for a safer time. Coming up to the present day, Nancy Umanoff described progress on the Dance Group's new permanent home in Brooklyn, which will have the company's administrative offices, large rehearsal studios and space for former dancers to teach classes.

The day ended with Mark Morris, in an interview with Alastair Macaulay which ranged from his early ambitions (an eight-year-old Mark drawing himself as a pizza chef) to his methods of work. This starts with the music, first listening then reading and rereading the score before going into the studio. His music "has to have a hook". not necessarily greatness as music but something to draw him into it. He later described his hook as a challenge, a problem, a strangeness that needed fixing. The hook for Four Saints seems to have been the very American qualities of Thomson's opera. This led to questions about the first production, choreographed by the very English Frederick Ashton, which Morris had researched in detail. He referred to recent productions and to a l940s recording with the original cast, full of mistakes and impossible to follow with a score, "but completely fabulous"; Morris cares about accuracy, but never in ways that would compromise the vitality of what he does.

Morris also talked about the development of his choreography; one early dance, made at the age of 15 to music by Harry Partch, "and everything I have ever done was in that dance. Though now I do it better." He also explained changes in his work: earlier dances shared partnering equally between men and women, with no gender-specific moves. This is something he now does less often; sexuality is no longer an embattled issue, and "I'm not angry any more." But he is angry about the presentation of men, and virtuosity, in ballet: "Odette, I know you're upset right now, but could you just stand over there while I do these seventeen meaningless pirouettes?" And he complained about the artistic standards of various initiatives for older dancers: "We started that. And it's gone way too far: you don't become this living national treasure just because you've lived some years." Morris is, always, a dazzling performer, and brought a very successful day to a happy end.

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