Choreographer Mark MorrisAAE extraordinary commitment to live music.
When the Mark Morris Dance Group performed last weekend at George Mason UniversityAAEs Center for the Arts, five musicians traveled along with the dancers to Fairfax, Va., from the companyAAEs headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. By bus.
That was the easy part. Hotel arrangements were a touch more complicated: The violinistsAAE rooms had to be far from MorrisAAE, so they could rehearse in the early morning while he had some quiet.
SaturdayAAEs lunch at the theater had to
be staged in two waves: Midday for the musicians, who will eat after their sound check, and later for the dancers, whoAAEll dine following their afternoon class.
Oh, and did somebody find a page-turner for the pianist?
This is what you have to think about when youAAEre that rare gem in the dance world: A company that performs to live musicAuwith its own musicians, even on tour. When MorrisAAE troupe traveled to Russia in March, the basses could be checked as baggage, but the group had to purchase extra passenger tickets for the three cellos. (The cellos could not be seated in the emergency rows, but they did accrue frequent-flier miles.) Violas were stowed in the overhead compartmentsAubut one didnAAEt fit, and a flight attendant had to be persuaded to store it in a closet reserved for the crew.
MorrisAAE extraordinary commitment to live music comes at a cost. But it transforms his performances and enriches the experience immeasurably. If youAAEre a dance fan, and especially if youAAEre a patron of modern dance, you have no doubt endured punishing sound systems and unpleasant volume levels in even the best theatersAunot to mention the flat, cold sound quality you get from even the finest large-scale amplification of canned music.
Live music is wildly expensive, inconvenient and an organizational hassle.
All worth it, says Morris. Recorded music is phony. Dead.
AoDoctored and fixed and repaired,Ao he adds, dismissively.
AoWhy would I expect the music not to be alive when the dancers are alive and the audience is alive?Ao he asked last week in Brooklyn, seated in his office overlooking a rainy Flatbush Avenue. ThereAAEs merriment in his pale blue eyes, even paler than the silvery hair curling at his temples.
The five-story Mark Morris Dance Center is an oasis of serene white walls, pale wood floors and natural light, where the company rehearses and classes are offered to the community. But his office is a party: The walls are a dazzling lime green. Wooden carnival masks gape down at us. ThereAAEs a gleaming tub in the adjacent bathroom, ringed invitingly with rubber duckies. This is the domain of a man with exuberant appetitesAufor color, richness and fun.
Music is a part of that energy. MorrisAAEs works have always been known for their musical sensitivity, whether the accompaniment is Chopin etudes or the Western swing of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The George Mason program featured three works: AoVisitationAo, danced to BeethovenAAEs Cello Sonata No. 4 in C, Op. 102, No. 1; AoEmpire GardenAo, danced to Charles IvesAAEs Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano, and AoVAo, to SchumannAAEs Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44.
AoVisitationAo and AoEmpire GardenAo premiered last year at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where MorrisAAE troupe is the only dance company to perform. ItAAEs a heady atmosphere: Morris typically collaborates with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Colin Jacobsen.
All of which means Morris has built up a following of music lovers as well as dance groupies. Live music, and particularly live interesting music, expands his reachAuand marketability. It also makes his group more expensive to book; it has had to accept lower fees in the current economic climate, and will run a deficit next year for the first time in its 30-year history.
But thereAAEs no thought of ditching the musicians.
Live music Aoabsolutely changes everything about the show, every time, every second,Ao Morris says.
ItAAEs a luxury most dance companies of this size canAAEt afford. There are other companies that may travel with live music: Flamenco groups, Indian dancers, foreign groups that are funded by their home countries. But nowadays musicians are too expensive for most US-based touring troupes to take along.
AoIAAEm often surprised at how many presenters will say to us, AaeCanAAEt you just do it to tapeAAE?Ao says Nancy Umanoff, Mark Morris Dance GroupAAEs executive director. AoWould you go to the opera and watch a film? We perceive it as that closely connected.Ao
There are risks: Rita Donahue, a 7-year veteran of the company and a former George Mason student, remembers a performance of AoAll FoursAo, to BartokAAEs String Quartet No. 4, where the violist broke a string.
AoShe just sat out the first movement, then she left,Ao says Donahue. AoMark was in the audience, and he came down to the stage and told everyone, AaeA string broke! Dancers, just relax!AAE And we waited for her to get it fixed.Ao
Dance audiences are so unaccustomed to live music that hearing it can be a shock. AoYou go to an opera, and thereAAEs an orchestra and singers,Ao Morris says. AoYou go to a dance and thereAAEs some crappy laptop playing something.Ao
Not here. In the large studio just under the buildingAAEs metal roof, the rainAAEs drumbeat is soon drowned out by the grand piano. Morris is rehearsing AoThe MuirAo, a 20-minute dance to nine of BeethovenAAEs arrangements of Scottish and Irish folk songs, scored for violin, cello and piano. His group will premiere it, with singers, in two weeks at Tanglewood.
Morris settles into his chair facing the six dancers. Though seated, he seems to have the highest energy level of anyone in the room.
AoStop!Ao he cries out. The three dancers who have been springing side by side freeze. Morris swipes his hand through the air and they instantly respond, making their line flat to the front, rather than angled.
AoGo,Ao he says, and the pianist starts up again.
AoStop!Ao a moment later. AoAs adorable as it is to run like a frisky 7-year-old, donAAEt,Ao he chides one dancer. The stopping and going continue for about 40 minutes, with Morris continually paring the movement down, getting the dancers to simplify and reduce. At last, he has the dancers run through the piece from beginning to end, minus the falls to the ground. No one should overdo it this close to showtimeAubut their intentions must be clear.
AoEasily and accurately,Ao he instructs them.
The room buzzes. In the opening section, the emphasis is on the downbeat, but the arms are held proud and high. The effect is at once full and light. At times Morris claps along with the music, or whistles. Mostly he joins his baritone to the pianistAAEs soprano.
AoShe is the darling of my heart ...Ao he croons, as dancer Laurel Lynch leaves her partner, Dallas McMurray, and McMurray gazes after her. Then he turns his back to us and claws the air in a curiously poignant, bestial impulse that figures in the piece a few times.
AoHeartbroken,Ao Morris calls out to him. AoNot a (expletive) dance!Ao
Exuberance. Authenticity. The singing, the dancing, the piano, the energy of this swinging, simple, lacerating dance. ItAAEs not only the dancing that makes the room vibrate; itAAEs not simply the music. ItAAEs the whole experience.
Not just live. ItAAEs life.
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