Behind the Scenes with the Mark Morris Dance Group

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Mary Brennan

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In the course of this autumn tour across the UK, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) will make a welcome return to Edinburgh, a city that – no doubt along with many others on both sides of the Atlantic – has benefited from these visits in ways that don’t always make the arts pages.

What follows is intended as a glimpse of what has, in other times, gone on behind closed doors.

The scene is an impersonal – determinedly functional – conference room in an Edinburgh hotel. It’s August 1992, and Mark Morris is in session, giving a press conference to assorted hacks’n’hackettes who are dutifully expressing interest in the why and wherefore of his company’s dance programmes on that year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). Few of them are dance specialists and most are looking for an angle that will please the news desk editor.

Now it’s not the absolute first time that the Mark Morris Dance Group has set foot on UK soil. That debut came courtesy of Dance Umbrella in London, 1984. But MMDG hasn’t been back since. There has, of course, been the three year stint as resident company at Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels where Morris – so the widely circulating cuttings files reveal – discomfited most of the local press with off-the-cuff, caustic asides about contemporary Belgian choreographers. However he also succeeded in making some outstanding full-length ballets, thanks to La Monnaie’s enviable budgetary largesse: one of those works, Dido and Aeneas is to be performed at the Festival.

Introductions over, questions are invited. Morris, in baggy shorts and with long, luxuriant elf-locks tossing round his shoulders, is grinning somewhat wolfishly as a trickle of timid-tentative questions come from the floor. One goes as follows. “You’re dancing Dido and the Sorceress – female roles – yourself. Why?” Did the Morris shoulders shake, briefly, with suppressed laughter? There was certainly a killer-diller smile as, in purring tones, he delivered the following reply. “Because it’s my company – and they’re the best parts…” Folk suddenly become tongue-tied. Sight unseen, what can anyone say about Morris’s choreography that won’t sound daft or insultingly banal? Proceedings will draw to a close, soon after. Much of the ensuing coverage will be cut-and-paste jobs, coloured with the column inches of gossip that had percolated out of Belgium. A deal of this had simply been gratuitous sniping but Morris had also been outspoken on issues of gay rights – this was, remember, a period when AIDS was still being stigmatised as a ‘gay plague’ and his forthright stance as an ‘out and proud’ man simply added fuel to the furore.

Now, cut to another scene: a crowded school hall in (fairly) central Edinburgh – packed with slightly bemused parents and wildly excited twelve-year-olds. It’s later the same month, August 1992. Morris and his dancers have been wowing Festival audiences, but this is something else. A behind-closed-doors ‘show’n’share’ session where several school groups reveal what they’ve been up to with various tutor-teams from MMDG. Morris himself – baggy shorts, elf-locks and now hung about with adoring kids who love the way he deals out no-nonsense ‘do it better’ commands – is in his element. I’m the only journalist there – this hasn’t been turned into a press briefing, and Morris certainly isn’t treating it as part of the EIF publicity machine.

Because, actually, this is far too important. What the kids have been doing is far too important to be turned into a media circus.

Somebody flicks a switch. The air fills with the gorgeous imperative rhythms of the Polka from Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo. And the bountifully dread-locked, tall and sturdy Guillermo Resto is joining hands with a skinny wee lassie on one side and a lanky lad on the other – and suddenly, there’s a circle of mostly school children interspersed with company members and they’re dancing the self-same steps that so delighted the EIF’s paying customers the week before. And it’s hugely emotional, because this is the end of the MMDG workshops and no one – neither the school staff nor the pupils – wants Morris and his dancers to leave. The dancers give out company t-shirts. The youngsters swamp the dancers with hugs. And Morris? His expression is frankly hard to pin down. But perhaps it was reflecting the potent hold that music and movement have exerted on him since his own childhood. Would any of those kids be sparked into future dancing? Who could say? But for one afternoon at least they’d tasted a little of what continues to feed Morris, fuel his creativity.

Each August, from 1992 to 1997, Morris and his company were a mainstay of the EIF dance programme. And year on year, they provided some ‘under the radar’ element of community/outreach work. One time Morris held a choreographic residency for professional dance-makers – his chosen task for them was ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’. Anyone who thought that this was just a bit of jokey fun was soon disabused of that folly: the session I watched was seriously focused on structure, content and musicality – and while witty dance was welcomed, lazy clichés were not. Another year found local senior citizens getting in on the dance, age being deemed no barrier to learning tricky new steps. For six consecutive years, Morris and his dance group were a much-anticipated fixture. There have since been moments in interviews when he’s wondered why MMDG suddenly fell off the programming wish-list – I’ve no idea either. But one thing shines out bright and clear, and that’s the far-reaching effect MMDG had on not just Edinburgh’s but Scotland’s perceptions of contemporary dance. When, for instance, the company performed Dido and Aeneas, or the glorious immersion in Handel that was L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, there was a part of the EIF audience who turned out because the music was live, not because there was dance with it… For many, it was truly an eye-opener. Morris’s gift of getting under the skin of music, making movement that doesn’t follow any tum-ti-tum slavish response of ‘jump high when the music goes UP!, fall to the ground when the music goes LOW!’ actually meant that audiences were listening as much with their eyes as their ears. People of all ages will still say they only started going to contemporary dance because of Morris – they frequently add, ruefully, that it’s not often as good.

Meanwhile, back in the 90’s, Scotland’s first National Dance Agency – known as Dance Base – was gathering the kind of momentum that would take it from an inhibitingly cramped studio in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms to an enviably light and airy custom-built complex in the Grassmarket. Morris did remark, mischievously affecting a ‘get you’ attitude, that HE didn’t have any kind of permanent base to call his own – but he still agreed to be Dance Base’s artistic patron. And even when he was back in New York, out of sight was never out of mind. When there was an all-out fund-raising push to ensure the Grassmarket building went ahead, he sent a video-cast for the launch that – with roguish humour – made the kind of sassy appeal that more or less says ‘never mind winning hearts and minds, let’s get straight to their wallets.’ Potential sponsors were rightly impressed. By then MMDG had made inroads all across the UK, garnering plaudits for its repertoire, musical choices, dancers… If Morris reckoned Dance Base had legs – wasn’t just some penny-anny enterprise – then yes, it was an Open Sesame for corporate wallets.

Come Hogmanay 2009, Morag Deyes and her Dance Base associates will be staging a celebration of Scottish dance – all sorts, for all tastes – called Off-Kilter and on the programme will be a piece by… you’ve guessed. Mark Morris.

In time, MMDG did get its own home base, the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn where the School not only offers a vast range of classes to a vast range of ages and abilities, it also (in 2007) introduced Music Appreciation classes for children – totally logical when you consider how music is such a talismanic force in Morris’s choreography. Another forward-looking project included dancers and teaching faculty staff collaborating with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group to work with adults who have Parkinson’s Disease. Dance for PD testimonials from people who found that being guided through movements helps to ease symptoms, and gives them a real sense of respite, are humbling. No wonder Morris himself has fetched up at a conference gathering of neurologists, having been invited to talk about rhythm, movement and neural networks.

So why is all of this behind-scenes involvement so important to us, as onlookers?

Because it speaks of a passion, a commitment – maybe even an obsession – that lives and breathes music and movement. Not as some 9-to-5 job – and there are (advisedly nameless) choreographers who do clock-in and clock-off. Morris could never be one of that ilk. He simply has to get the dance out there. Connect it to as many people as possible – and even when it’s recreational, it’s serious. During one campus workshop he issued a steely warning: ‘If you unwrap a candy in my rehearsal – you’re gone.’ Actually, this isn’t tyranny just for the sake of it. This is about concentration. And knowing that if you work with rigour and discipline, that degree of application will take you forward – a good lesson for life, not just for dance-making.

Now in his early 50’s, Morris is still as rivetingly forthright and flamboyant as ever – even minus the elf-locks. The magpie curiosity that leads him to explore different cultures, relish discovering new tastes – in food, in music, in clothes – is undiminished. Once upon an interview, he spoke enthusiastically about the US television series Law and Order, and his admiration for (the late) Jerry Orbach, one of its mainstays. “Of course, he was a star on Broadway – played in 42nd Street.” This fact, tossed casually into the conversation, simply re-enforced what was already apparent: if it dances, Morris is onto it.

And when his own dance comes on-stage, what you see is only a part of what Morris and MMDG contribute to the rhythm of life and to the benefit of people who aren’t even in the theatre…