Mark Morris on Mozart

February 24, 2010

Mark Morris's "Mozart Dances" (Photo Credit: MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP / Stephanie Berger)

At the beginning of Morris on Mozart, two stage hands appeared on the Sanders Theater stage. They moved the interview chairs, rolled up the large oriental rug that had been beneath them, and promptly carried it off stage. The amused audience began to whisper. Why would they need to roll up the rug for an interview about music and choreography?

Mark Morris, the famous modern dance choreographer and director of the Mark Morris Dance Group quickly answered our questions: he strolled on stage carrying a bottle of red wine. He was also wearing sneakers, sweatpants, and a hot pink pashmina shawl. Music critic Richard Dyer greeted him, Morris poured himself a glass of wine, and the conversation began.

The first topic of the evening was music. It was Wednesday, January 27, Mozart’s birthday, and Mark Morris was presenting a suite of dances called Mozart Dances at the Boston Opera House that weekend. Dyer reminded Morris of the legend that it is impossible to choreograph to Mozart’s music. Morris rolled his eyes at this, but admitted that Mozart’s pieces are so artistically complete that they don’t need choreography to fill them out. Because Morris views choreography as the creation of something separate from, albeit intimately related to, the music rather than the act of freeing movement from within the melody, he feels comfortable adding his own artistic vision to Mozart’s complete one.

It was surprising to hear this view coming from Mark Morris, who is famous for his thorough attention to music. He is often accused of “Micky Mousing”, an insult used in modern dance circles for choreography that blindly follows every beat and trill in the music. Morris responded directly to these accusations: first he pointed out that in fact “Micky Mouse is a great choreographer. When he does those fast little steps to fast high notes, it’s sheer genius.” Second, he reiterated that his choreography is not dictated by the music. Instead, Morris responds to subtleties in the score and often demands that his dancers move on the offbeat, or right before a musical accent, rather than on some of the more obvious cues.

Morris was not shy about his artistic preferences. He praised Mozart and South Indian Karnatic music, and poured scorn on modern dance improvisation. According to Morris, most modern dance improvisation is “solipsistic and egotistical”, and he described contact improvisation, in which dancers share and exchange their weight with one another as “puppy piles”. Throughout the conversation, Morris made it clear that he prefers dance and music that is rhythmic and well thought out. He felt no need to justify this preference, positively comparing the validity of his opinions to that of a little girl yelling “Mommy, mommy, I like the red one!”

Despite this comparison to child-like preferences, Morris and Dyer’s opinions were clearly supported by a broad knowledge of music and dance. Mark Morris has studied Karnatic music for years and often choreographs with a classical music score in hand. During the discussion, Dyer had the uncanny ability to name every piece and performance that Morris gestured to.

The two succeeded in having an erudite conversation without losing their sense of humor, which, particularly in Morris’ case, was quick and a bit raunchy. One woman asked how to get her fifteen year old son to agree to attend Mozart Dances, and Morris responded, “He’s fifteen?! Leave him alone. Let him do whatever fifteen year old boys like to do alone in their rooms.”

Morris’ humor wasn’t gratuitous, however. When he talked about art, he made it clear that art shouldn’t be treated with religious awe. Instead, we should be able to openly dislike and even laugh at it. Towards the end of the talk, Morris knocked over his glass of wine with one of his emphatic gestures. Amidst the laughter, one of the stagehands reappeared to clean up the spill, and Morris, acknowledging her foresight in removing the rug, offered to take her out for drinks to make up for it.

-The Harvard Art Review Dance Board


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