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Mark Morris, Musician
Men in Dance

Mark Morris, Musician

Mark Morris’s use of live music has evolved from a preference to an imperative, and this essay presents three examples of how music drives his creative process.

By Seth Stewart Williams
Photo: Amber Star Merkens


Mark Morris’s career to date has been bracketed by two phases in which he has brashly upended choreographic conventions. One was hard to miss, and the other easy to overlook. The first phase, when he burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, challenged a number of the dance world’s pieties: Morris foregrounded his queerness during an era when many choreographers favored a glass closet, questioned when and whether gender matters, and made dances marked by a devotion to music that was at once brainy and deeply felt.

This musicality might have seemed something of a throwback if not for the fact that few choreographers—perhaps not even George Balanchine—have been so precisely and wittily attentive to the structural nuances of a musical score, and if not for the fact that Morris directed his musicality at any genre whatsoever, from un-championed gems of the baroque repertory, to the Carnatic traditions of India, to deep cuts from mavericks like Yoko Ono and Harry Partch. If his taste in music was almost shockingly catholic, he was equally open-minded in his choice of dancers, whose diversity of bodies made them look less like a dance company and more like America.

His embrace of such a heterogeneous ensemble has something to do with his own initial training as a boy in Seattle, which in addition to ballet involved deep study of Spanish and Balkan folk dances. In synthesizing such traditions he has repeatedly valorized the collective, not only as a choreographic unit but, implicitly, as a social unit. Even one of the century’s great ballet soloists, Mikhail Baryshnikov, found that new forms of artistry were possible as one member among many in his performances with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and with the company he co-founded with Morris in 1990, the White Oak Dance Project.

While Morris’s arrival and early successes threw many audiences and critics back on their heels, the radicalism of his more recent phase has been all too easily misapprehended. This is in part because it’s really an intensification—although a significant one—of the musical and group sensibilities that have distinguished him from the outset. The difference is that he has not only heightened the interdependence of dance and music in his choreography, but has extended this to an institutional interdependence between the making of music and the making of dance. Morris’s use of live music has evolved from a preference to an imperative. His company has expanded to include not only superlative dancers, but an in-house collection of superlative musicians, all of whom now tour as the Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble. Morris has occasionally taken the helm of this ensemble himself as one of its conductors, making him perhaps the only major choreographer whose career has spanned both stage and orchestral pit.

Morris’s work to integrate music and dance is on the one hand a reversion to Western traditions (especially of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when choreographers were almost always also musicians). On the other hand, it follows from Morris’s embrace of several global traditions that thrive on the unification of music and dance, the live interaction of which allows performers and spectators alike to engage in a nuanced exchange of aesthetic sensations. In particular, Morris has for decades made close study of how gesture and sound interact in classical Indian dance; while he rarely draws on odissi or bharata natyam directly, these and other forms have served as crucial models for his own innovations. In the following clip from a 2014 PillowTalk, Morris addresses the special vitality that comes from the co-occurrence of live music and dance:

Mark Morris in a PillowTalk with Scholar-in-Residence Maura Keefe, 2014
View Archival Record

Morris gained newfound international acclaim upon his appointment in 1988 to head the dance division at one of Europe’s most prominent arts institutions, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, during which time he produced several large-scale productions of enduring importance. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), choreographed to Georg Friedrich Handel’s setting of John Milton’s poems, presented a dazzlingly rich, universalizing vision of the moods of mirth and melancholy that course through human life. Since the premiere of his Dido and Aeneas (1989) Morris has constantly played with different ways to cast two of its lead roles, Queen Dido and her nemesis, a Sorceress. Not only have male and female dancers played both roles, but the same dancer has often played both. Every iteration of gender in its casting suggests new possibilities for what this dance can say about the relationship between desire and mortality. In the The Hard Nut (1991), a tender-hearted and unsettling reinvention of The Nutcracker set in a 1970s American household, Morris directs a critical eye at everything from consumer culture to midcentury racial caricatures.

While articles and books about these evening-length works abound, Morris has also been equally celebrated for his achievements in more intimate compositions, whose smaller scale leaves them no less sweeping. The Pillow has always been a special home for his chamber works, some of which it has commissioned. In what follows, I offer short studies of three such dances, with footage drawn from the Pillow Archives.

New Love Song Waltzes

Many of the qualities for which Morris is celebrated—from his musicality, to his subversion of gender norms, to his almost peerless facility in choreographing contrapuntal groups—are at work in the excerpt below, a 1987 performance at the Pillow of an early hit, New Love Song Waltzes (1982). Morris sometimes uses partnering—including same-sex partnering—to suggest romantic couplings, but more often to suggest a range of human attachments that supplement and rival such couplings. Here, one woman spins onstage, carrying a second woman as the German lyrics report that “my mother pins roses on me, / because I am so melancholy.” Shortly after the women finish spinning, the score immediately repeats the same melody and text, and so does Morris’s choreography, this time with two men. On its surface, this repetition suggests that the frustrations of love recur with little regard for who loves whom. And yet the lyrics are not explicitly about romantic love, but about the ministrations of a mother, a factor that raises a number of questions: are these two visions of parental care? Of the thwarted affairs that often necessitate the comfort of a parent? Of the many kinds of queer attachments that often provide support in the absence of parental care?

Morris often raises such possibilities without resolving them, and in the next song he pivots, as his work often does, from scenes of isolated dismay to the rush of collective experiences. This song’s speaker, after observing “wave after wave” of rain in a downpour, expresses their internal desire in meteorological terms, yearning to “shower” their beloved “with a hundred thousand kisses.” Brahms plays with a number of surprising cyclical forms to express the turmoil in these words, and so too does Morris, whose dancers surge and churn in a series of algorithmic echoes, their arms wheeling. Toward the end of the song, a dancer separates from the group and lies down. Is this the speaker watching the storm, or the object of that speaker’s tempestuous desire? The song ends with one dancer upright, the other still recumbent, and the storm’s force spent, a reminder that the speaker’s metaphor for amorous excess has a menacing side: storms, after all, can obliterate.

Mark Morris Dance Group in New Love Song Waltzes, 1987
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Deck of Cards

A triptych of solos set to country and western songs, Deck of Cards (1983) not only displays Morris’s early commitment to testing the meanings of gender, but the way in which the dazzling structural subtleties of his dances are like a good poem, rewarding careful attention and repeated viewing. The first solo, to Jimmy Logsdon’s “Gear Jammer,” is for a remote-controlled truck, an object that lacks gender, although the male speaker in its accompanying song implies that it’s driven by a man. He relates a monitory tale about the dangers of abandoning one’s shipping route: when he pulls over for a beautiful, hitchhiking blond, she and her accomplices rob him; when he pursues them in his truck, the wreck of their car lands him in prison. The song’s narrative largely consists of images illuminated by the truck’s headlights along a dark highway, from the woman used as bait to the ensuing wreckage—this is the nocturnal landscape of a Western gothic. The choreographic coup of this first solo is the way that it makes subtle use of one of the imperatives that drove postmodern dance in the generation preceding Morris: to break the “fourth wall” separating performers and spectators. Here that’s accomplished by the mere fact that the toy truck’s headlights are the stage’s only lighting, and that they repeatedly pause when trained directly at the audience, transforming spectators into the alluring and dreadful things that flash into view in the song’s lyrics.

The solo that follows (displayed below), for Morris in a pink dress, is set to George Jones’s “Say It’s Not You,” a song about a man who frets that the rumors he’s heard about a loose woman are actually about his woman. The choreography here features a series of lush, weighted turns and waltz steps, punctuated by gestures that seem, on first viewing, idiosyncratic and disjunctive. While Morris’s attire evokes the wandering woman, many of his gestures coincide with the speaker’s words and feelings, placing him in the role of the wronged man. For example, when the speaker hears that “each night she leaves with someone new,” Morris assumes three stark postures that evoke the speaker’s anguish at that prospect, with arms first low, then raised at his side, and then folded above as if to shield himself from the very thought of betrayal. As the dance progresses we realize that Morris is both characters at once, and because both roles reside in one body, we even begin to wonder whether the song’s refrain—“darling, say it’s not you”—isn’t directed by the speaker at himself, a figure struggling to accept some aspect of his own actions or identity.

Deck of Cards

And yet our view of this choreography shifts entirely when we realize—if we’ve watched carefully—that every single gesture in Morris’s solo derives its specific meaning from the words in the third solo, which follows it. That dance, performed by a man in underwear and a soldier’s jacket, is to T. Texas Tyler’s “Deck of Cards,” the lyrics of which tell a folk fable about a soldier who is rebuked for drawing out a deck of cards during church services. The soldier explains that his deck is actually a pocket devotional: each card reminds him of different scriptural events and lessons. Here Morris makes wry use of another postmodern form: a Trisha Brown-style accumulation in which new gestures pile up in a growing sequence (“A” becomes “AB,” which becomes “ABC”…). As the speaker explains the religious meaning behind each card in the deck, the dancer repeats every foregoing gesture before adding a new one, compiling a gestural deck of cards.

For example, the speaker explains that “When I see the three, I think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In the choreography, the soldier strikes three poses on these lyrics, one for each aspect of the Trinity: arms low for a beneficent Father, outstretched for a crucified Christ, and covering the eyes as if in awe of the Holy Spirit. These are the very three poses that Morris himself executed in the previous solo, when the speaker revealed that his woman enjoyed a different man every night. This moment in Morris’s solo becomes, in retrospect, something of a joke about a Trinitarian three-way. As with much of Morris’s repertory, what’s funny also points toward a broader truth, in this case a religious one: that spiritual yearning for a tripartite divinity can seem a confusingly promiscuous proposition. As with this single moment, every other gesture from the second solo acquires its full meaning only belatedly, from the third solo.

What’s so fascinating about Deck of Cards is how nuanced the triptych grows through the interaction of multiple elements across the three solos. Each is about a form of dissembling that stymies desire, whether that be desire directed at a blond vamp, a straying lover, or an inaccessible divinity. If each solo suggests that clarity comes by thinking through an initial deception—that is, through careful interpretation of surface effects—Morris’s dance as a whole makes a similar demand of his audience, who grasp the full sense of each solo only by reconsidering it in light of what follows.

Donald Mouton in Mark Morris's Deck of Cards, 1987
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Falling Down Stairs

Morris’s choreography does not, like that of many other choreographers praised for their musicality, merely reflect the rhythm and mood of its music. Instead, Morris uses dance to expose the hidden workings of a score, and in turn the passing ambiguities and chance encounters that make up the stuff of human life. When a composer transforms a musical motif, for example, Morris subjects choreographic motifs to a related transformation. His keen eye for music produces a rich movement palette in Falling Down Stairs (1995), a collaboration with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the designer Isaac Mizrahi, first broadcast in the PBS series “Inspired by Bach” and filmed in the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow. Morris turns the recurring formal features of Bach’s “Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello” into a sequence repeating vignettes.

Early in the below clip, which comes from the dance’s concluding gigue, six dancers circle up, raising their fists to both sides and then spinning around themselves. A scene of muted group conviviality, it calls to mind a round of drinks with beer mugs uplifted in a toast. When this musical phrase recurs at the gigue’s end, so too does the circle of upraised fists, this time with ten dancers, as Morris tests his ability to cram more bodies into the same number of musical bars. In between come two stunning moments.

The first exemplifies Morris’s musical wit. As six dancers ascend the stairs, they briefly arrive in two symmetrical single-file lines, when suddenly, over the course of just three notes, the melody first plummets—dropping two octaves plus a third—and then recovers, in one of the most unexpected, dramatic gestures in all of Bach’s cello suites. Morris might have responded to this moment in any number of ways, for example with a similarly drastic physical plunge or leap, or a portentous gesture. Instead, the dancers deliver a nonchalant, low kick of the leg to the side, with a relaxed ankle. In lieu of melodrama or acrobatics, Morris opts for a form of virtuoso understatement.

The second moment shows how Morris can turn a musical idea into a dramatic idea. The cello becomes “stuck” in a tense, almost polyphonic alternation between two strings (a bariolage), with both the upper and lower registers battling for control of the melodic line. The dance also becomes stuck: like a murder scene from a film played in slow motion, three dancers clasp their fists and slowly bring them down on a fourth dancer, who melts beneath them. When the musical line unexpectedly frees itself from this fraught passage, so too does the fourth dancer. Rather than a pose of triumph, however, she raises her arms in a neutral, almost hieratic V shape, with two of her assailants absorbed into the strange tableau. The fourth crumples behind her, an unanticipated casualty. Immediately after this, the final circle of upraised fists recurs, and we realize that its gestures of “toasting” with the right and left arms are the two halves that make up the two clasped fists of the slo-mo violence. Across these vignettes, Morris encourages us to reflect on how the full spectrum of human interactions gets cobbled together from the same collection of impulses. None of this little drama is embedded in Bach’s score, and yet it fits seamlessly, turning formal suspense into moral unease. This is perhaps Morris’s hallmark as a choreographer: an ability to give musical ideas choreographic forms that are at once so logically right and yet so wholly surprising.

Falling Down Stairs

PUBLISHED December 2018

Seth Stewart Williams is an assistant professor in the Department of Dance at Barnard College of Columbia University, where he is also an affiliate of Barnard's English Department and of Columbia's Ph.D. program in Theatre.Read Bio

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