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Mark Morris


Dancers in Dido & Aeneas.  

In the fall of 2001, in a small town called Aldeburgh, in an Agatha Christie–like hotel on the North Sea, Morris made a momentous decision after a midnight chat with Umanoff and Alterman. He had just danced that evening in an ensemble piece called The Office. He wanted to know how it looked.

"Because when I looked around the stage," Morris told them, "I thought, I don't even know these people. I feel like the crazy-scary uncle."

"Well . . . " said Alterman.

So that was that. Morris never danced in The Office again.

It was a brave thing to do. As Marshall Hagins, the company's physical therapist, points out, the modern-dance world is teeming with aging dance boomers. "A lot of them have simply refused to stop dancing," he says. "You see a lot of performances with older people now."

And Morris does still dance -- but mostly in smaller, more personality-driven pieces. Because he's the man in charge, he can still choreograph for himself, too, tailoring new pieces to his strengths. He still has excellent balance, for instance. He still turns very well. He still dances with tremendous wit. "And he's still a physical genius," says Hagins. "That doesn't go away with age."

But as any dancer knows, there's no substitute for loss of power, which inevitably comes with age. It's also much harder for older dancers to do something quite basic: jump.

Getting Morris to discuss this is hard. Ask him how he's coping with his transition into midlife, and he essentially brushes off the question, saying it's natural, it's inevitable; he isn't one to dwell. Mizrahi just thinks his friend was well prepared. "He paced the funk over such a long period of time," he says, "and he saw it coming for so many years that when he finally went through it, it was nothing."

Morris also seems a bit vague when I ask whether he sees any potential successors on the horizon -- or whether there are any up-and-coming choreographers he likes. "I don't know," he says. "Gee . . . I mean, I don't have a list. I wish there was more stuff I liked, let me put it that way." He struggles to be diplomatic. Perhaps he has mellowed a bit with age. "I'm not interested in being, like, emperor-for-life of dance," he says after thinking about it for another minute. "I want to see a bunch of other fabulous stuff. I really do. And I see things that are wonderful sometimes. But I just can't say, This is the thing."

Morris himself is on the Pittsburgh program this evening, in a modest and wistful little number called Foursome. As the title suggests, the piece has four people in it, and it seems specifically designed for men of a certain age: Three are older than 40. I must confess that for the first 60 seconds, Morris does stand out -- not necessarily as the crazy-scary uncle but as a man more likely to charter you a fishing boat than dazzle you with a pirouette. (Part of this has to be deliberate: He is wearing hiking shorts and a bright-orange shirt that doesn't exactly minimize his middle.) After another 60 seconds, though, he becomes a standout for other reasons entirely. His eyes show up from the back of the house. He can wring a deadpan moment out of a plié. All I can think of is Buster Keaton. ("That's funny," says Mizrahi. "I think of him as a silent-film star, too, but usually as a Gish sister.") At the after-party, held at a local art gallery, Morris sails through the crowd, chatting with donors and contributors to the Benedum Center. He tells them about working with the English National Opera, tells them about the crazy tics and habits of dancers, tells them about a woman who called him that morning, wondering whether he had time to drop by her dance school and teach a class of 225. ("Like, sure," he says. "One at a time!") The curator of the gallery approaches and introduces him to the artist whose work adorns the walls.

"Your dancers are your paintbrushes," she tells him in a thick Dutch accent. Morris raises his eyebrows in amusement. "Um, thank you." "And your last dance was perfect."

"Hmmm. What does that mean?"

He chats with her for a few minutes, then apologizes and excuses himself, explaining that he must "go swan."

"His ability -- and willingness -- to socialize with my patrons means an incredible amount," says Paul Organisak, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council, at the end of the night. "Most artists are not generous in this way."

It's unseasonably cold outside. As we leave the building, Morris stops in the street, turns to me, and plants his hands on his hips. "So," he says. "I hear you thought I was mean during rehearsal today." Not mean, I say. Scary.

"Oh." He waves his hand dismissively, whips his scarf around his neck, and pulls his jacket snugly around him. "Scary," he says, "is fine."


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