Mark Morris

Photo: Marc Royce

Every so often, Mark Morris’s dancers pass a tranquil afternoon in their new Brooklyn studio. This could not be described as one of them. • “Stop, stop, stop!” Morris pops out of his seat and runs his hand through his hair. His company, gorgeous and panting, looks over at him expectantly. They’re used to this by now: the brusqueness, the impatience, the periodic flare-ups that could spook a Buddha. To work with Morris, one must never confuse frustration with anger. His circuits work much faster than most. “Figure it out,” he says. “Everyone has to do this step in the same size; otherwise, it doesn’t fit.” Morris is troubleshooting a ten-second stretch in which the dancers are, in fact, shooting – or pointing imaginary guns, at any rate, and then blowing smoke off them – in one of the more literal sequences from Resurrection, set to Richard Rodgers’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” The piece will be filmed for television, which means Morris has to choreograph it with an eye toward close-ups, inserts, and cutaways. “We’re walking through this in bits – ” Morris stops abruptly and glares at a lanky redhead who’s conferring with a colleague. “Don’t talk through me, please.” The dancer starts to explain, then reconsiders. “We’re walking through this bit by bit,” Morris resumes, “because that’s how I want to shoot it. This piece is going to shift gears a lot.” He looks back at the redhead. “Now you may speak.” “I don’t need to anymore.” Morris rolls his eyes and starts to wander back to his chair. The redhead looks helplessly at two of his fellow dancers and mouths something. Morris whips back around. “Hello? I can see you in the mirror.” The dancers start again, and for several beautiful minutes, Morris seems pleased. He whistles along to the score, calls out eccentric direction (“I don’t want creeping“), and even swans about himself, indulging every now and then in a music-box pirouette. Then the music shifts and he starts to frown. The ramp-up to the ending is all wrong. He stops the company once more. “Here’s what I want this to be … ” Morris looks at the score, starts counting on his fingers, and for a brief moment gets lost in his own head. “Think of it all in triplets so it’s lazier rhythmically,” he finally says. “And I want it to be broken-looking. If I were referring to an artist I hate, it’d be Keith Haring.” The dancers try again, finally nail it, and Morris spends the rest of the rehearsal trying to guide his company into a coherent finale. It takes some doing – for a while, the studio feels like a busy airport – but the shapes and lines eventually shake into place. The music stops. The company freezes. The two lead dancers have landed, with perfect panache, on their colleagues’ backs. “You know what that’s called?” Morris asks, looking gloatingly over at me. I tell him I don’t. “Choreography.” He puts his hands on his hips, smiles luminously, and gives his rump a triumphant shake.

Mark Morris, the uppity squirt who got himself banned from the American Dance Festival eighteen years ago for crying “No more rape!” during a piece created by Twyla Tharp, is now 46 years old. He performs in fewer dances these days; he’s even cut his trademark curls. His company, now in its twenty-second year, is filled with dancers young enough to be his children rather than the friends with whom he came of age. When The Hard Nut, Morris’s interpretation of The Nutcracker, opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week, only 5 of the 33 dancers who performed in the BAM premiere ten years ago will reappear.This kind of durability is, to say the least, a rarity in the universe of New York modern dance. Like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp, Morris has gone from insurgent to icon. But unlike any of the others, he’s gone from leader of a “youth and pea-soup collective” (as his general director, Barry Alterman, so aptly calls it) to steward of a brand-new, $7.4 million cultural institution in Brooklyn bearing his name.”To have this extraordinary asset,” says Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which sits across the street, “is an extraordinary anomaly. Most choreographers feel as though they’ve accomplished the greatest task just by finding a studio to make their work. Because – and this you should put in italics – there is no money. None.”Morris is perhaps the first world-famous alumnus of the seventies dance boom, when companies were plentiful, substantial grants to small troupes were available, and enthusiasm for experimental choreography ran high. “When Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor came of age in the fifties,” says Ellen Jacobs, the veteran dance press agent, “modern dance was either ignored or held in contempt. People of Mark Morris’s generation, on the other hand, could have the fantasy of becoming Mick Jagger.”It surely doesn’t hurt that Morris has the cockiness and king-size personality of Mick Jagger, either, or that he first started drawing critical raves at roughly the same time George Balanchine died. “There was this institutional vacuum,” says David R. White, executive director and producer of Dance Theater Workshop. “Though Mark’s work was obviously very different from Balanchine’s, it was also quite similar. He used the whole stage. He valued the ensemble. And he made the dances about the music. So there was this critical response, in certain quarters, that he was heir to the Balanchine spirit.”As Morris has matured, so too has his famous aesthetic, which was once a cracked kaleidoscope of bent legs and unpointed toes. Today, he works in lean, clean lines, and his dancers – at first a motley, even an ungainly bunch – are almost regulation-issue. “They’re like a different line,” says Isaac Mizrahi, the designer-philosophe and Morris’s closest friend. “The company has changed its face entirely.” He thinks for a second. “And its ass. The asses are smaller now.”Morris seems to take the same pleasure in his current popularity as he once did in his iconoclasm. “I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently criminal in your work being watched by lots and lots of people,” he says. “If you’re only happy with other dissatisfied choreographers watching your work, that’s ridiculous.”Then again, Morris’s work was never esoteric to begin with. He has always had a flair for the theatrical, always loved to make the audience laugh, always made unapologetic use of symmetry and pretty costumes and “dancey-dance movement,” as Joan Finkelstein, director of the the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, likes to say. “Mark was never very, very avant-garde,” says Jacobs. “He was doing dances to beautiful music twenty years ago. He’s the acceptable enfant terrible.”That knack for striking a balance between accessibility and originality just may explain how Morris went from a curiosity in a church basement to a star attraction at the Mostly Mozart Festival. “No artist has had a more immediate impact across the spectrum of the dance world,” says White. “And none so easily straddles our singular New York environment and the heartland.”

“The company has changed its face entirely,” says Isaac Mizrahi. “And its ass. The asses are smaller now.”

For a man who’s one of the best at what he does, it’s astonishing how modestly Mark Morris lives. His one-bedroom apartment of lavender and mint green is in a beige, nondescript postwar building in a neighborhood that’s not quite Murray Hill and not quite Kip’s Bay. You or I could live there. Many hardworking New Yorkers could. When he greets me at the door, I tell him this. Actually, I shout it – Bach is playing on the stereo, and Morris is whistling, with equal vigor, right along. He turns down the volume.”Really?” He looks amused. “When I do a big piece, I don’t, like, buy a château.”Though Morris no longer has the physique of a dancer (but a gut – a frank, unconcealable, American-guy gut), he still has a face of surpassing loveliness, with strong bones and eyes set so far apart he seems biologically predisposed to take in the world at wide angles. When he speaks, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. At the moment, he’s discussing his favorite film images of choreographers. “James Cagney from Footlight Parade,” he says. “Or Roger De Bris in The Producers. The line about him going to the choreographer’s ball – that’s like the funniest thing in the world. I wish there were one.”And The Birdcage?”The Birdcage is a piece of shit,” he says. “It was a horrible, horrible movie. It’s offensive to queers; it’s hackneyed. Though the French movie was good. Funnyish. Not funny enough.” He drags on a Dunhill.In the dance world, Morris is known for a personality as charged as his choregraphy. He speaks quickly, smokes copiously, and observes the world with cruel precision. He brooks no dumb questions but tolerates naïve ones. He also has a limitless tolerance for caffeine.Has Morris learned anything about making people happy over the years?”Yeah. It’s impossible. That’s what I’ve learned. It can’t be done. And that’s fine.”What about managing people?”I’m still not great at it,” he says. “I mean, I’m friendly and I’m funny and I’m smart and I work fast and I’m pretty honest, but I’m very bossy, and I’m very, very demanding, and I’m specific and not very patient. And though I don’t mean to be particularly vicious, I know I can be. So if you can’t handle that, you probably shouldn’t really be in my company. Coffee?” He vanishes into the kitchen.”I kind of think of Mark as a monster,” says Mizrahi. “As a funny, cute monster that I love. Because he does exactly as he pleases with no consideration for anybody or anything. Always. And if it makes you happy, then you can be his friend. And if it doesn’t, you can’t.”Morris grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Seattle, the youngest child of three. Dance seemed to be printed in his chromosomes; in her great book, Mark Morris, Joan Acocella conjures an unforgettable image of him jamming his tiny young feet into plastic cups so that he could dance, like his sister, on pointe. His mother supported his interest. By the time he was 13, he’d taken up flamenco, ballet, and Eastern European folk dancing. When he was 17, instead of going to college, he went to Madrid to learn more Spanish dance. When he was 19, he came to New York.Morris spent just four years dancing with other companies before founding a troupe of his own. His first big splash came at bam in 1984, with a trio of pieces called Gloria, O Rangasayee, and Championship Wrestling After Roland Barthes. It was also the year of the incident with Tharp.”I’m less likely to make a scene today,” he says. “That’s less interesting to me now than it was. Now I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings unless I really want to hurt somebody’s feelings. So. Do you want more coffee? Or is it not good?” Again, he vanishes into the kitchen. “It’s weird, right?” he calls out. “Kona. Maybe I’ll make the other one. A different bean.”Sure, I tell him, looking around the living room. His bookshelf is a shrine of doodads, covered in disco balls, penny jars, nutcrackers, Jesus statues, Ganeshas, half-mugs. A stuffed rooster sits on the television set. Some scraps on his desk are anchored by a giant Advil paperweight.He seems to know exactly what I’m doing. “I like oversize stuff, undersize stuff, and multiples,” he calls out, clanging cups.

Dancers in Morris's Dido & Aeneas.Photo: Dan Rest

On the sunny autumn day Mark Morris’s studio opened at 3 Lafayette Avenue, the Arts section of the Times led with a dream headline: MARK MORRIS DANCE CENTER ADDS LUSTER TO BROOKLYN. It should have been a glorious moment, a real coup, but few people focused on the Arts section that day. u.s. attacked, the front-page headline read. HIJACKED JETS DESTRY TWIN TOWERS AND HIT PENTAGON IN DAY OF TERROR.

Nevertheless, Morris’s new home base – funded mostly through large grants from the city, foundations, and individual donors – is thriving. It has 400 students, most from Fort Greene. It has state-of-the-art gym equipment, an on-site physical therapist, plush dressing rooms, three rehearsal studios, and shiny, enabling spring floors. And it will soon have a 150-seat performance space.

“I think it also has a hot tub,” says Harvey Lichtenstein, former guiding light of BAM and now the head of the bam Local Development Corporation. Lichtenstein helped Morris secure his building, once state-owned, for the fire-sale price of $200,000 in 1998. Wait – a hot tub?

“He has something there,” says Lichtenstein. “He works hard and likes to soak.”

Just how Morris went from having no rehearsal space to 31,000 square feet of dancer paradise is no small matter – even if he is Mark Morris. Today, he is the only name choreographer – living, anyway – to own his own studio in New York. His prodigious talent surely explains some of it, but Lichtenstein thinks the most powerful explanation resides in a single word: Belgium. In 1988, Morris’s troupe relocated to Brussels to become the official dance company of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. His relationship with the Belgian press was lousy – they didn’t find his candor as charming as the American press did – and his relationship with the critics was worse. But in Belgium, Morris realized how invaluable it was to have a home. It freed him to do nothing but create, and that he did: twelve dances in three years. “Belgium gave him a taste of what he wanted to shoot for,” explains Lichtenstein, once a dancer himself. “I don’t think other American groups have thought that big. If Paul Taylor had come to me and said, ‘I want that building,’ I would have done anything to make that happen, too. But it takes the individual choreographer.”

Perhaps Morris has mellowed a bit with age. “I’m not interested in being, like, emperor for life of dance.”

It didn’t hurt that Morris had excellent and faithful management as well; unlike many artistic types, he is unafraid to delegate and has no problems working a room if asked to do so. He happily sends flowers to his benefactors, happily makes thank-you calls, happily charms people who might contribute to the company somewhere down the line. “He’ll come back from somewhere and say he sat next to a rich woman on the plane,” says Nancy Umanoff, the company’s executive director, “and that she was fabulous, and that she loves dance. Then he’ll drop her card in my lap. ‘Here,’ he’ll say. ‘Invite her to my next show.’ “

At Morris’s apartment, I ask if having his own studio added any extra pressures in his life. “I just don’t want to be … absorbed,” he says. “There’s a big societal push toward smooth mediocrity. No bumps. No excellence. Not making trouble.”

How realistic is it to worry about this? “It’s not,” he says. “But that’s why I’d prefer to be seen as a loose cannon – which I’m not, and never have been. But if that’s agitating in some way, I like that. The worst thing that can happen is if people go to a show and don’t talk about it afterwards.”

Despite the fact that it has a home of its own, the Mark Morris Dance Group still spends roughly 22 weeks per year on the road, and touring is still how the troupe earns about 75 percent of its annual income. (In fact, it often loses money when performing in New York, because Morris has a penchant for orchestras and virtuoso musicians.) The group charges from $25,000 to $40,000 a performance, which might sound like a lot until you consider that the company has eighteen dancers, two staff members, four crew members, and anywhere from two to ten live musicians whenever it goes on the road.

Morris, clad in his favorite scarf and a violet T-shirt bearing the famous sketch of the Unabomber, is now standing on the stage of the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, reviewing music cues to Brahms’s New Love Song Waltzes. One pianist he’s never worked with before; the other has never done this program. Curtain is in six hours. There’s little time for niceties.

“That’s half-time,” he tells one. “What are you doing?”

“It’s too long on that,” he tells the other. “I want it more Viennese.”

Because Morris has had very little formal musical training, he doesn’t always speak in a strict musical vocabulary. If there’s dead, meaningless downtime, he’ll complain that there’s “too much digital silence.” If the music’s too tentative, he’ll demand more “turbulence.”

Yet whenever Morris creates any dance, it starts, always, with the music. Critics have often noted – in both laudatory and scathing contexts – that there’s a Fantasia-like quality to his work, as if it were music made literal.

“It’s too fast!” four dancers shout simultaneously at the top of a particularly complicated waltz.

I know it’s too fast,” snaps Morris. “You’re not running this. I’m running this. And I’m trying to fix it.” He instructs the pianists to slow the pace. They begin again and Morris lies down on his back, watching again from the ground, so that the musicians can have an unobstructed view of the stage.

“When I was first asked to work with Mark Morris, I had no idea who he was,” says Ilan Rechtman, one of the two pianists, on his fifteen-minute break. “But the moment I saw his work, I had this feeling that I wouldn’t mind quitting what I do and following him wherever he goes. He has a totally magnetic personality, and I find him to be a better musician than most of the men and women I’ve worked with.”

“Musicians always talk about structure,” adds Joel Fan, the other pianist and Morris neophyte, about an hour before curtain. “Motifs, repetitions, valleys, mountains – the things that hold pieces together. And what I’ve found with Mark is that his choreography mirrors the structure of the music so well. It’s almost as if he were Schumann expressing himself through dance.”

I ask if he was at all wounded by the severity of Morris’s tone during rehearsal. “Of course not,” he says. “When you’re working, and you have a certain vision, you should never beat around the bush.”

It’s hard to watch Morris’s work without thinking of mathematics. There’s a logical, deeply classical structure undergirding almost all of what he does. At their most puzzling, his pieces look like calculus; at their most dazzling, like the elegant steps in a geometry proof. Many of them are saucy – seldom do people laugh so much at dance concerts – and most are athletic; when his dancers hurt themselves, it’s invariably in their calves.

“His dances were always very kinetically satisfying,” says Tina Fehlandt, who retired from Morris’s company two years ago after dancing with it for twenty. “It seemed like whatever movement he chose was the only thing that could happen – like every dance was the Ur-dance.” When Morris started his career as a choreographer, skinny, linear bodies were in vogue. He didn’t like them. He preferred his dancers fleshy, and he conceived their roles in revolutionary ways. Women danced with women and men with men; sometimes, women even picked men up.

In the age of Will & Grace, this kind of sex-role tweaking seems almost quaint. But it was startling for its time, and it had real physical consequences for his corps. “Before dancing with Mark, I spent two years dancing with Paul Taylor,” says Joe Bowie, 38. “I was always squatting and jumping, always picking people up, because with Paul, men are men and women are women. But after a few months with Mark, I noticed I could wear jeans again. My thighs were no longer too big.” He pauses. “Oh. And I finally had a neck.”

As Morris’s dances started to change, so, too, did the shape of his corps. Today, though his dancers still vary a good deal in age and ethnicity, they look much more as one would expect – lean, conventionally shaped. And some of them didn’t start out that way. Toward the end of her performing career, Fehlandt noticed that her body looked younger, not older; she had become lithe rather than thick. “They say that form follows function,” she says with a shrug. “I guess this is what happened to me when Mark’s dances got less galumpy.”

“Hey, I never meant for it to be a freak show!” says Morris. “It was never like, ‘Oh, I need more black people,’ or ‘Oh, I need someone shorter,’ or ‘Oh, I need more homosexuals.’ So now it’s like, ‘Uh-oh – I accidentally hired someone beautiful!’ It’s not like I mind.”

He adds that the dancers who audition for him today are more traditional-looking because their training is more traditional; most universities emphasize ballet these days, even in their modern-dance programs. “Ten or twenty years ago,” says Morris, “you didn’t have both of those. Juilliard used to be a modern-dance school with a ballet side. Now it’s sort of a contemporary-ballet dance … thing. Their dancers are more … amalgamated, I guess, than they are versatile.”

Veterans of Morris’s company all agree, however, that the one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is Morris’s vivid and demanding rehearsal style. “It’s incredibly stimulating to be around Mark,” says June Omura, who has danced with Morris for fifteen years. “He’s brilliantly funny; he has impeccable timing. And then he has his very bad moods. That can be hard. Sometimes he says things to us as if we’re deliberately trying to sabotage his work.” She hesitates.

“What makes us able to put up with everything is that we love him and we love the work,” she finally says. “Growing up, my dream was to dance with a great choreographer. I felt so sad I never could have danced for Balanchine. I used to think to myself, That kind of choreographer comes along once every hundred years – what are the odds of my finding one? And yet that’s what’s happened.”

Dancers in Dido & Aeneas.Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

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.”

Mark Morris