What is it that makes Mark Morris what he undoubtedly is: one of the most prolific, inventive, and gifted choreographers alive today? According to the man himself, he just gets a kick out of making dances. “It’s what I like to do, it’s what I do well, and it’s what I do all the time,” the 55-year-old quipped in a recent phone interview. “It’s my job.” It’s a job he’s stuck with ever since founding the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980. This month, Morris will be honored with a Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Prize—an award that in past years has gone to such luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Meryl Streep. And this Thursday, April 26, Morris will bring his company back to the Granada Theatre, where they’ll perform along with the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble. I spoke to the ever-colorful Morris by phone last week.
It has often struck me that while dancers in your company are strikingly individual, they all kind of move the way you move. How do you account for that? Well, they take class with me every day of their careers, and I have certain style preferences. For example, when you start with my company, if you somehow didn’t learn to point your feet properly in your training (which is pretty much the case with everyone) then you learn to point your feet. There’s a great deal of rigor and non-bullshit in my dance. My work is very, very specific, and everyone does it differently, thank God, but it all comes from the same place.
Yet you don’t have a codified Mark Morris Technique. The technique is derived from the choreography, not from class. I only teach ballet class: I don’t teach modern dance classes anymore, because it’s bullshit; it’s a way of not having any rigor. So my dancers are fully fluent in ballet, but it’s not what they do onstage. But the contact improv-y, fake, relaxed slop that a lot of people use as a modern dance technique doesn’t go anywhere. I’d rather work with athletes.
So do you ever hire dancers who are trained primarily in a technique like contact improvisation, since you used that particular tradition as a counterexample of what you’re looking for? I use the term contact as a way to show my disapproval of the very low standards of modern dance. It’s like, what if you could stand on one leg and balance? Wouldn’t that be interesting? I’d rather watch dance that takes some actual rigor and continuity. I love classical Indian dance, and I love great flamenco when it’s done well. I like things that people have to practice and learn. I don’t want to hear a violin lesson; I want to hear music. I don’t want to see the behind-the-scenes part of training. I don’t want to see the slice-of-life.
Speaking of flamenco, what does duende mean to you, and is it relevant to what you do? Well, sure. When I was studying Spanish dance in Madrid when I was 17 or something like that, the xenophobic Spanish would say that the Japanese dancers who were extremely good technicians would never “get” duende. It’s like saying, “You wouldn’t get it: It’s a black thing; it’s a gay thing,” and yes, okay, maybe that’s true to a certain extent, but beyond that, it’s just bullshit. Duende is passion, and maybe it’s aligned with Spanish nationalism or Catholicism or with being a gypsy, but it’s also just about expressing feeling.
Do you ask your dancers for duende? I ask for honesty and commitment and passion, so yes, it’s the same thing. It has to do with honesty and fearlessness.
You’ve remained enormously prolific for decades. Do you have any rules for yourself in terms of your rate of production? No, but I’m a choreographer, right, so I choreograph. I don’t know very many if any choreographers who are also running a company as artistic director, who teach company class every day and rehearse every day and travel everywhere on tour—especially middle-aged people like me. I’m also pretty much always working on a new piece or two. And then I have some commissions with various ballet companies, so I’m always preparing to make a new dance or making a new dance. I’m not freelance, which makes things easier. When you’re freelance and dependent entirely on commissions, the tendency is to agree to do everything, and then you’re fucked. So no, I don’t have a quota for myself, but I’m always working.
Has your capacity changed over the years? Do you have to pace yourself differently? I know exactly how that works. I know I have to have recovery time after travel, I have to have a certain amount of weeks off each year, I can only work on a new dance a certain number of hours a day or I burn out. Sometimes I have to turn down work if I can’t fit it into my schedule. I was asked to do a couple of things this fall and I’m already overbooked with too much time away from my company. So I turned some things down. That’s a good problem to have. But you know, I’ve been around a while.
You are of course known best for choreography to classical music. Are you ever inspired by pop music—do you dance to Justin Bieber in the privacy of your bedroom or anything? Yes, I listen to things like that because you can’t help it. I know a lot about contemporary music and culture; I watch TV and listen to the music that you can’t miss, and I look things up. I’m interested in the world I live in.
In the face of massive federal debt, America’s health-care crisis, peak oil, and global injustice of all kinds, why does dance matter? It doesn’t.
Does it matter to you? Yeah. Sure. It’s all I do, but it’s not very important, and I certainly wouldn’t force anyone to watch it. As a part of civilization and culture, it’s important, certainly. The society without culture is no society. A world without literature and music and thought and philosophy, without entertaining each other—that’s unspeakable. Art is what one does while one is on Earth before one dies. It’s so important that it doesn’t matter. And I’m talking about the arts, which is just a fancy way of talking about life. You can walk, and you can walk fancy, and that’s dancing.
UCSB Arts & Lectures will present the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Granada Theatre on Thursday, April 26, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. The company will also offer a community dance class on Wednesday, April 25, at 5:30 p.m. at Santa Barbara Dance Arts. For reservations, call 966-6950.