Mark Morris photo: Chris Sorensen
by Deanna Sirlin
Mark Morris Dance Group, Castor and Pollux at The Joyce Theater, 2023, Photo: Danica Paulos
Mark Morris created the Mark Morris Dance Group forty years ago. Morris began studying Flamenco at age eight with the intention of becoming a professional dancer. By the time he was fourteen, Morris had choreographed his first dance for himself and his friends. It was at that moment that that he knew that this was what he wanted to do: to create dance that has a profound relationship to music.
Mark Morris creates dances in relationship to particular pieces of music. It is through his connection to music and movement that his works come into being. The physical presence of the dancers as they leap and stomp and float with and against and through each other gives Morris’s work the verve and vigorous presence of art.
From a video interview of 2001 with Jeffrey Broan:
That means the physical fact of what's going on, the physical fact of dancing and the physical act of music, and the mystery and/or fantasy which is the artifice of performing. What you don't know that can't be expressed verbally. That can be expressed exclusively through other forms besides talking or writing.
The Mark Morris Dance Group’s performances at The Joyce Theater in New York City in August of 2023 reminded us of what we missed during the pandemic – attending live events. The program of new and old pieces presented the audience with his dancers’ unique connection to sound, movement, and one another. The dancers engage with each other in passages that reflect human relationships.
Tempus Perfectum, which was originally shown as an online performance with four dancers set to Brahms’s Sixteen Waltzes, op. 39, had its stage premier at The Joyce. In the live-streamed event, the dancers all wore masks; how wonderful to finally see the dancers live and to see their unmasked faces. As enchanting as the experiments the company made during the last three years were, no performance on Zoom can equal the experience of seeing the work in person.
Castor and Pollux, which was first performed in 1980 at the Merce Cunningham studio, was one of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s very first pieces. It has been performed only once since, during a December 1981 run at the Dance Theater Workshop. At the Joyce, this piece was staged by Tina Fehlandt, who danced in the first performance. Fehlandt had never seen the work from the exterior viewpoint, but of course, has an interior vision of the work from having performed it as part of the company. There is something profound about this transition from dancer to stager and the insight Fehlandt brings to Morris’s vision in relation to this work.
Mark Morris Dance Group, Tempus Perfectum at The Joyce Theater, 2023, Photo: Danica Paulos
Deanna Sirlin: You choreographed your first work for yourself and your friends when you were fourteen. What was that work like? Do still feel your roots as an artist reside in these early experiences?
Mark Morris: I had been making up dances since I was a child, but the first good one was from a Summer Dance Workshop run by the First Chamber Dance Company. I set the dance on myself and other students. It was set to "Barstow-Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing near Barstow, California" by the incredible DIY composer, Harry Partch.
All the dances of my past fuel all the dances since. I have returned to Partch's music many times.
Harry Partch: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1968)
DS: Many of your works contain humor, which can be quite difficult for most artists. When did you first start including humor in your choreography? Why is the presence of humor important to you?
MM: Of course, there is no Comedy without Tragedy. That's life. It is difficult for many artists because they're not very funny. Our culture tends to see seriousness and levity as incompatible for some non-funny reason.
DS: Would you say that dance is a parallel to gestural painting?
MM: I would say that dance is the gesture bit, and the painting is the product that's left behind.
DS: What is the role of improvisation in your work?
MM: All performance is to some extent improvisation, solving a problem on the spot. There are hidden pockets of improvisation in all my work, and the fact that we always work with living musicians adds a crucial element of spontaneity.
Sunshine was part of Dance On! An Evening with the Mark Morris Dance Group streamed live on Zoom and YouTube on Thursday, May 28, 2020. This online event premiered four short video-dances by Mark Morris, choreographed and rehearsed for the first time entirely via Zoom video-conference. The pieces feature the company in short videos shot in and around their homes.
DS: Do you begin the choreography of a new work with a narrative? Or does your process begin more formalistically? Is the music the starting point of the process of making a dance?
MM: I am a musician who choreographs in order to see what I dig out of a piece of music, or something like that. Music is always first.
DS: Spalding Gray spoke about a moment when he was acting in a play and spontaneously executed a hopscotch on a checkerboard pattern on the floor. He described this as a “personal action” and declared it to be “the first seed of performance.”
Opening night, they put down a rug that was not there for dress rehearsal, and it had squares on it. And I was to make a downstage left cross, and I decided to all of a sudden just-I did it, I improvised, and did a hopscotch on the squares to get downstage left, and everyone laughed. Everyone. And I was hooked. (From: A Personal History of the American Theatre by Spalding Gray:
Performing Arts Journal, Volume 8, Number 2, 1984 pp. 36-50 Published by The MIT Press)
Have you ever experienced a similar performance epiphany?
MM: No. Although I knew Mr. Gray and loved his work with all respect; that sounds nuts to me.
Originally conceived as a longer work for live performance, Lonely Waltz is a three-minute piece set to the two-piano, four-hands arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse that was rehearsed solely via Zoom. For this video-dance, Morris used dance phrases for couples and singles created earlier in the year that would work in a limited space and still have visual interest. Both piano parts are performed by MMDG Music Director Colin Fowler, who also collaborated with Morris to edit together the music and videos of all 18 company members. Lonely Waltz was part of Dance On! An Evening with the Mark Morris Dance Group streamed live on Zoom and YouTube on Thursday, May 28, 2020. This online event premiered four short video-dances by Mark Morris, choreographed and rehearsed for the first time entirely via Zoom video-conference. The pieces feature the company in short videos shot in and around their homes.
DS: How do you communicate a new dance with your company? Is it through verbal communication of dance moves or is it a physical conversation?
MM: I make up all my dances in the studio with the dancers and pianist. I communicate through music, demonstration, suggestion, improvisation, description, long anecdotes, procrastination, and by then. . . it's 5:30! [end of the workday]
DS: During the pandemic, the company made a series of Zoom dances. How do you perceive them now?
MM: They were video-dances and not meant to translate to a theater. I don't like dance on film in general. These video-dances are short, edited, puzzling entertainments that are meant as short subjects that stand on their own.
DS: Has your understanding of choreography been influenced by the experience of dancing remotely?
DS: Thank you for answering my questions.
Mark Morris Dance Group, All Fours, at The Joyce Theater, 2023, Photo: Danica Paulos
Mark Morris was born in Seattle, Washington. founded the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) in 1980. His work is acclaimed for its ingenuity, musicality, wit, and humanity. In addition to creating over 150 works for MMDG, he conducts orchestras, directs opera, and choreographs for ballet companies worldwide. Live music and community engagement are vital components of the Dance Group. It has toured with its own musicians, the MMDG Music Ensemble, since 1996. The Mark Morris Dance Center, opened in 2001, provides a home for the dance group, subsidized rehearsal space for local artists, free programs for the community, and dance classes for people of all ages, with and without disabilities. Morris’ memoir, Out Loud, co-written with Wesley Stace, was published in paperback by Penguin Press in October 2021.
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Photo: Marie Thomas
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She received an MFA from Queens College, CUNY where she studied with Robert Pincus-Witten, Charles Cajori and Benny Andrews. She has received numerous honors, including a Rothko Foundation Symposium Residency, a grant from the United States State Department, a Yaddo Foundation Residency and a Creative Capital Warhol Foundation Award for its Art Writing Mentorship Program. She recently received grants from the United States Artist Grants and The Georgia Committee for The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, and the Judith Alexander Foundation. She has been artist-in-residence at the Cini Foundation in Venice, Italy, the Padies Foundation, Lempaut, France, and for the City of Nuremberg, Germany. Sirlin has had solo exhibitions at The High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Venice, Italy; Fundação Eugénio de Almeida, Évora, Portugal; The Centre for Recent Drawing, London, UK; and the Atlanta Contemporary in Atlanta, GA. Her work has been commissioned for exhibitions at The New Orleans Museum of Art and The Georgia Museum; she was invited by Pawel Althamer to part be of his exhibition at the New Museum, NYC. Sirlin's work has been written about in The London Telegraph Sunday Magazine, Art in America, International Art News, Art Papers Magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine, Digital Art, Southern Living Magazine, Sculpture Magazine, Catalyst Magazine, and Flavourpill Magazine/London. Her book, She’s Got What It Takes: American Women Artists in Dialogue was published by Charta Art Books, Milan, Italy and NYC in 2013. She currently is an artist-in-residence for the Midtown Alliance/Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.
Sirlin's current solo exhibition is Wavetable, 211 East 43rd Street, NYC, NY 10017 and is on view through November 14, 2023. The building is open 24/7 for viewing.