Since 1980, the Mark Morris Dance Group has performed throughout the world. From 1988 to 1991, the Mark Morris Dance Group served as the national dance company in Belgium at its theatre royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. Since 1991, when the company returned to the United States, it has made regular and frequent appearances in Massachusetts, California, and the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in New York, and the Edinburgh Dance Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also makes regular appearances in Berkeley California's Zellerbach Hall where his brilliant reworking of "The Nutcracker" entitled "The Hard Nut" is performed each holiday season. His most recent accomplishment is his critically acclaimed revival of the French Baroque Opera "Platee."
Goblin: Your biography says you were very influenced by Disney movies. In another part it goes on to say you are fascinated with the beauty of the human butt. The book doesn't make a connection, yet we've noticed Walt Disney also had a buttock obsession.
Morris: Well it's true of course that he was. Well let's see; I'm not obsessed with . . . I like Walt Disney except that you know, except for the horrible fascism. I love the art of it. I like a lot of things I don't agree with and that's one of them. Disney is thrilling and informative and important and beautiful and suspect. Butts was a detail I observed later and definitely ties in. I suppose I was programmed, yeah.
Goblin: Ok. Would you say you are really a Flamenco dancer at heart?
Morris: No I wouldn't, I would say that I am a dancer at heart. Flamenco was my entree into this . . .
Goblin: There's always so much stomping around going on in your work -- it's the basis of ethnic dance. Actually it seems like the Rites of Spring by Stravinsky would be such an obvious piece for you to choreograph, cause it's such stomping music.
Morris: I don't just stomp.
Goblin: No no no. (laughter).
Morris: That piece has been choreographed so badly so many times. I'm loathe to do it but I may eventually because it is one of the seminal art works of the twentieth century.
Goblin: People don't point out much you have an extreme love of intricacy.
Morris: Yeah . . . . but I trick them because they think it's simplicity.
Goblin: They always say it's simple but they're stupid.
Morris: Right, well there you go. I love the way in which I make up dances. It's a complicated way and the product is usually clear. Clear and simple. I don't need everybody to know that there are all of these fabulous things going on. If you CAN see it, that's wonderful.
Goblin: You're like Shakespeare in that you have very broad gestures - any idiot, any groundling could get, like the man standing on the other mans chest at the end of a parade for instance, yet there's so much subtle stuff going on for the connoisseur. That the universality of appeal is unique among choreographers of our generation.
Goblin: What is your take on the traditional British school of choreography, like Ashton.
Morris: I think Ashton is great and Filles Mal Guardee is fabulous. The work isn't known as well as it should be in the states. There's a good new book about him by Judy Cavanah.
Goblin: There's a hysterical picture of him dressed as Queen Victoria.
Morris: I've seen a lot of Guardee over the years, but I haven't seen anything recently because no one does him anymore except for Romeo and Juliet. His symphonic variations is thrilling, a great work.
Goblin: The first of that type of dance wasn't it? Abstract?
Morris: Perhaps it is, pretty close to that, including those little monotones that I love.
Goblin: Is it true for you that it's the narrative that sort of grabs people in? There's either some kind of told or untold story . . .
Morris: I think everyone is desperate to make up one, and they're right. I mean you can make up a story in any situation, and you're right as the viewer . . . yet it's not my intention to dictate what people should think. I like the ambiguity, I like leaving some things open but clear enough in intention that it's laid out.
Goblin: Is it even ambiguous to yourself?
Morris: Sometimes sure it is. I'm not after a closed system, I mean I'm after a complicated system in structure, but as far as watching it, I don't think that everything should be decided.
Goblin: When we see your dances there seems to be a clear point but we're never quite sure what it is.
Goblin: Do you notate your dances? If so, how?
Morris: We don't. We have video tapes of dances, notes and oral histories. And also, dances go away they don't have to last forever, it's fine with me. Notation systems are so cumbersome and so academic. I don't know any working dancers who read and write these notations in any way. That's a whole separate category of scholarship.
Goblin: Do you usually get more pleasure from the larger productions like "The Hard Nut" or more from the family-sized pieces such as "Gloria?"
Morris: A bigger production is a lot more exhausting and stress producing and risky and interesting. Every show is a different thing. I just finished this opera in Eddenburrow called "Platee" and it's a giant giant undertaking, it turned out beautifully and I'm relieved about that. But it was really really hard. So the bigger the show, the more headaches, but of course the pay off is relative.
Goblin: Do you think it's easier to make the audience feel like they're friends with your dancers in the smaller pieces?
Morris: Oh, they don't have to be their friends.
Goblin: We get the feeling that you really want the audience to be the friends of the dancers when they're watching -- to feel an interpersonal reaction almost.
Morris: We're all in the same room, so I want people to be involved with one another, but again you can't decide exactly to what extent that operates. It varies all the time and it depends on the show, it depends on the audience, it depends on everything.
Goblin: Is it possible to have a 60 year old dancer in your troop who has something valid like a gesture or pose, that they can do without actually doing so much strenuous dancing? At what point does a dancer get cut off completely?
Morris: I think part of it is that American culture has gone crazy about cute youth and that's just one tiny little facet of interest as far as I'm concerned. That changes as I get older. Age groups get cut off because people see dance as a sport instead of an art, like gymnastics or figure skating.
Goblin: Can figure skating ever actually achieve the status of an art?
Morris: Not as long as it's competitive.
Goblin: What if it was not competitive?
Morris: Perhaps . . . I mean there are people who defend that it as an art. I don't. I like it but it's not an art form as far as I'm concerned, and yet it's a similar thing, once you can't land those jumps, you're disqualified -- that precludes it from ever becoming a serious art form.
Goblin: Isn't there an awful lot of ballet and port-des-armes in ice skating right now? Skaters are using their arms and their upper body.
Morris: Absolutely, it's wonderful, it's beautiful, but it's limited in that it's competitive.
Goblin: To me the real problem is you can't point your toe properly in ice skates. They have that little thing stuck on the bottom of their foot.
Morris: Exactly. It's just how I ended up doing things. I build duets into bigger works. I like to see people working together. What we call a giant solo in my company is about four bars long while twenty other people are doing something dynamically. I like the charge that is set up by a lot of people doing something.
Goblin: In the traditional male pas de deux there is always an obvious male and female. In a male male pas de deux is there an implication of a bottom / top or is it just equals?
Morris: There's no one way to do that. And there's no one way to do that as male/female either.
Goblin: Mostly the male is dominant.
Morris: Usually that's going into biology in a certain way. There's certain strengths and weaknesses to both of the sexes. And I'm not against employing those nor am I against denying those, what I am looking for is a very large array of options.
Goblin: It seems that earlier in your career you used to favor husky women, strong women, that were capable of lifting.
Morris: It was earlier on that I was more adamant in my sex politics, in that everyone should be able to do everything equally and I feel less that way now than I did. I like that my dancers can do anything they're required to. It's less important to me politically that all the needs be met in every single piece.
Goblin: It seems that Martha Graham had a stifling cult of the personality. No one can change one jot or tittle of her technique without holy hell from the front office. What is your take on Graham?
Morris: She was extremely, extremely important, in the generation of this art form she effected. That importance has waned since she died and since she started doing bad work but, as a force in the history of dance she's unparalleled and crucial. The fact that the technique doesn't mean much anymore is just what happens as things go on.
Goblin: Do you have a core technique or just literally change your style from dance to dance?
Morris: I try to work in the language that applies to the dance I want to make up, you know so I would prefer not to be accused of having a technique. There are things that I believe in very strongly and my dancers must know how to do in order to work with me. Still, it's not like they must do it the way I would want because I don't know what that is exactly. I try to surprise myself.
Goblin: For variety's sake do you think it's more interesting to choreograph with other peoples bodies than your own, now that you're more the choreographer than the dancer?
Morris: No, that happened a long time ago. I'm interested in how every individual dances. I don't base it on my preferences exclusively. I'm working on various different ideas, theory's and experiments and that's what keeps me interested in how people can solve the problems of dancing.
Goblin: Have you had muses like Balancheen's wives? Certain dancers that just inspired you totally, with their technique and their movement?
Morris: That changes every week. The dancers in my company continue to surprise, excite and frustrate me.
Goblin: Are you worried about the Religious Right cutting off funding to the arts and trying to block access to anything overtly homosexual?
Morris: It's incorrect in my opinion to classify the religious right as the opponent to homosexuality because there are as many queer rightists as there are leftists. They are less likely to represent themselves that way . . . The trend most distressing to me, partly because of the unquestioning religious right is anti intellectualism or anti-excellence. There's a drive to not be very good at anything.
It's the way of the United States, and that's a big problem. That to me is defined by not causing waves, or striving for anything that is imaginative or interesting. That's a bigger problem than the very specific, and I think smallish, notion of queerness.
Goblin: Did you get effected by the cuts in national funding?
Morris: Well yes, we get money from the government, then we don't. It varies all the time. We get some money from different sources, and it's complicated.
Goblin: There is a serious problem with classical music sales in terms of the share of the market and the fact that young people pay no attention whatsoever to classical music. The audience is graying and getting smaller and smaller. Is there really a danger that the tradition of classical music is dying off?
Morris: No, it's just switching around, for instance, opera is very healthy now that there are younger people going and it has a wider audience than it has for a while. Whether that means the music is good or not is another story. I think classical music is happening, though most symphonies continue to be pretty run of the mill. It seems to be happening unless I'm crazy, but I live in New York.
Goblin: National Public Radio and TV are rarely sponsoring the classical arts these days.
Morris: National public radio and television are in competition with lots of cable channels and media that wasn't around before when they were the arbiters of classical taste. In that, there's not the same kind of market for them anymore. You can find much better things to watch than public television.
Goblin: Do you still have the same communal relationship with your dancers that you did in the beginning?
Morris: The work encourages that, the company itself does that. Now I'm a generation away from some of my dancers. That just happened over time and so that's normal, that's fine, there's no need to try to re-create that sort of relationship with anybody else.
Goblin: Was it strange to you, the adjustment of your older dancers leaving the company and the newer ones coming in?
Morris: It's gradual, and it's also how any organization works. It doesn't happen all in one day, it happens over years, so, you expect it, and you know it, so it's sad, or not, depending on who's leaving. But it is not surprising, it's constant.
Goblin: What is your impression of the Riverdance craze?
Morris: Oh, they're bad. I just like that they line up so well. It would be easy to shoot them. You could just mow them down all in one line.
Goblin: Is it possible to actually choreograph a pure movement type of piece that has absolutely no narrative and is simply communicating through the structure, or is that simply impossible? Does every movement literally convey something?
Morris: That's entirely subjective. As soon as one reads situations into everything . . . that's like the abstraction of dance is something I don't really believe in. Even though I work abstractly as soon as you see these two people facing this direction it's like a connotation.
That's regular, and that's not to be denied. It doesn't mean that you can't make up something through incredibly rigorous math and logic, but it will look like a situation because it will be one. It's complicated. You know the reason that you make something up; and the way that you make something up isn't the same as how it's perceived: ever. So I enjoy that. I can't say what you are seeing. What you see means what's happening right now and so that's enough.
Goblin: The critics didn't like you much when you first started to become famous. It's written in your biography that they had a strong dislike for choreographers who acted effeminate even though so many choreographers are gay.
Morris: Really?!?! (Laughter) There was the whole "pretend that you're straight" thing that happened for so many years. But that's not interesting to me. I don't think it's "femmey-ness."
Goblin: You're described as also having a truck driver side to you, is that from growing up in Seattle?
Morris: I think it's just being me. I don't really care. I'm big and strong and you know . . . fabulous.
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