Mark Morris has the rhythm and moves

News & Features

Mary Brennan

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Let’s tweak Shakespeare – something Mark Morris did not so long ago, with Romeo and Juliet – and declare: ‘If love of music is the food of dance – play on. Give this particular choreographer excess of it…’

Even if interviews with Mark Morris didn’t pick up on the passion, insights and quirks of humour that character his relationship with music, a scan of his own back-catalogue – not just the dance-works, but the increasing involvement with opera and, of late, orchestral conducting – would reveal that (aside from the odd beer or two, and possibly his own cooking) music is food and drink to him. It’s also what he talks about, when people – okay, dance hacks’n’hackettes – ask him about his choreography. Across the years, his pithy responses – and Morris is a master of witty pith – have included the following. “I’ve learned more about choreography from Handel than from other people’s dances.” (The same is true for audiences who have been lucky enough to see the master-work that is his response to the composer’s oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed  il Moderato.)  And “I’m not doing it to make people understand music: it’s a dance I made up to that music – people watch it, they get the music in a different way and they’re not scared off it. And I like that. And I don’t think it’s a dumbing-down thing.”

Ah… Two things here: one is that audiences worldwide feel that Morris’s choreography takes them inside a piece of music – that they ‘hear’ it with their eyes, and their instincts, not just their ears. And they respond rapturously to the experience, whether it’s Bach or Barber, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys or the American modernist composer, Lou Harrison, all of whom are the accompaniment to this UK tour. The second thing – and it connects to the popular following that the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) has built up over time – is sniped at, and dismissed, when Morris refers to ‘dumbing-down.’

Since the 1980’s when Morris archly shook his luxuriant elf-locks – now shorn, but rumour has it, still part of the knick-knackery that furnishes his apartment – and spoke his mind to anyone who questioned him, his reputation for provocative candour has preceded him. But in truth, his forthright comments on choreography – by others, as well as himself – have done the whole dance scene a favour. What is so wrong with people enjoying a dance performance? Since when is buying a ticket like booking in for two hours of penance, or boredom, or more pernicious still, being made to feel inadequate for ‘not understanding’ the dance.

Morris has absolutely no truck with any of that. He’s said in the past that he doesn’t believe “there’s anything innately criminal in your work being watched by lots and lots of people. If you’re only happy with other dissatisfied choreographers watching your work, that’s ridiculous.” And though Morris is rightly celebrated for his wicked sense of humour, and can even shock with his astute perceptions of the daft, banal details that so often intrude into moments of keen tragedy, ridiculous he ain’t. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s led his company – leaping and whirling, capering and succulent with it – through the quicksands of passing fads, critical whinge-ing and nit-picking, funding crises and through the hot air of ‘whither art? can it be entertainment?’ debates. And guess what? The erstwhile ‘bad boy’ of the American dance scene has now become one of its heroes, his iconic status reinforced by the fabulous resource in Brooklyn that bears his name: the Mark Morris Dance Center.

To what does he owe his success? Here’s another quote that could well be his motto. ““I make it up – you watch it. End of philosophy.”

He makes it up. We watch it. It’s the start of a great night out folks – enjoy!