‘My work’s about love, basically’

One of the key works of the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival is Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances from 2006. There will be four performances only, on February 13, 14 and 15.

PIAF artistic director Jonathan Holloway calls Morris “one of the greatest choreographers alive today and he is the great American choreographer. He’s never been to Western Australia. From day one I wanted to start my first festival with Lucinda Childs, who is another of my favourite choreographers, and finish with Mark Morris.” (Childs’s shimmering 1979 work Dance was seen exclusively in Perth in 2012.)

Morris has made more than 140 works for Mark Morris Dance Group, which this year celebrates its 35th anniversary, and is also feted for his work with classical companies. Since 1996 MMDG has undertaken no international tour without live music, which for the three-part Mozart Dances in its entirety means the availability of a symphony orchestra – the West Australian Symphony Orchestra will play for PIAF – and two solo pianists.

This is an expanded version of my interview with Morris written for The Weekend Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine, published on November 15-16, 2014.

EVERYTHING about Mark Morris is big: his exuberant laugh, his passion for music, the uncensored chat and bawdy talk, his endlessly inquiring nature. He’s a stayer, too. The American choreographer started making dances when he was 13 (although says he didn’t make his first good one until he was 15) and founded his own company at 24. He’s now 58 and Mark Morris Dance Group has not only survived, but is one of the world’s finest contemporary companies.

Morris has choreographed more than 150 works, mostly for his group but also for leading ballet companies, and works extensively as an opera director, conductor and music teacher. An indication of his tendency to over-achievement is found in his list of honours: among the many fellowships and awards are 11 honorary doctorates, membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the 2010 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel won it last year).

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

So when Morris says of his Perth International Arts Festival-bound Mozart Dances that it is performed to “more piano than anyone would ever do in an evening of Mozart”, what he means is anyone except himself. And this being Morris, live music is a non-negotiable part of the deal. When we spoke the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was on board and Morris was listening to recordings by Australian pianists to choose a soloist. Amir Farid, the Melbourne-based pianist and member of the Benaud Trio, was selected. MMDG music director Colin Fowler will be the other soloist.

“I will not work with taped music,” Morris says emphatically. “I absolutely will not. If you want my dance company you have live music. People see it as crazy diva, but it’s also my work, and so here’s how it’ll be done. If people don’t want that, that’s ok,” he says comfortably, speaking from his headquarters in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, most people find Morris’s terms entirely acceptable because they have resulted in a singular body of work that includes the adored and frequently revived L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), to the music of Handel; his famed production of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas (1989); and Mozart Dances (2006).

Mozart Dances is a triptych for 16 dancers comprising Eleven, Double and Twenty-Seven, named after their music – Mozart’s 11th and 27th piano concertos flank the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. Eleven foregrounds the women of the company, Double features the men and in Twenty-Seven “everyone is happily reunited”. After the New York premiere of Mozart Dances in August 2006, John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote he felt “safe in pronouncing it a masterpiece”. Morris had made “something as serious and profound as dance gets”.

While some audience members may be familiar with Piano Concerto No.27, the 11th is likely to surprise. “Eleven is a rare one. It’s a fabulous, very, very delicate, turbulent piece. It’s very emotionally complicated,’’ says Morris, who describes the evening with some understatement as “a good big show” of a scale appropriate for MMDG’s Perth debut. (The company visited Adelaide in 1994 and Sydney in 2003.)

The 11th concerto appealed for another reason. Mozart arranged a chamber version of it, meaning that if there is no symphony orchestra available, Morris can present just the first two sections of Mozart Dances with a smaller number of live musicians and perform something else in place of Twenty-Seven, which needs a full orchestra. Morris may not make any concessions on the subject of live music but he is pragmatic, and Mozart Dances can be adjusted according to circumstances.

“If we’ve just got chamber music then I do another piece in place of Twenty-Seven. Twenty-Seven can’t be done without an orchestra but the others can, which is why I chose them,” he says.

Holloway had considered asking Morris for L’Allegro but Perth has no theatre big enough for it. “It’s enormous. Mozart Dances is only huge. It’s just a full company of dancers, a full orchestra, piano soloists, and two hours of some of the most joyous dancing you’ll ever see in your life.“

Morris’s large, generous spirit is the bedrock of all his dance. “I’m a horrible monster from time to time but my work is all kind,” he says. “My work’s about love, basically, so when you get over the fact that I talk dirty and I’m very loud, I’m also really, really nice.”

He’s also wonderfully frank about the state of dance. “My work isn’t overtly political but of course I have feelings about things and one thing is the infantilisation of dancers in general, and generally the low-level misogyny and racism that’s inherent everywhere I look in the dance world,” he says.

“I have no problem being a middle-aged, white, male – that’s what I am. But I wonder where all the female choreographers are. Everyone who wants to make up a dance should [do so]. I’m not damning, it’s not a competition thing at all, but a lot of it seems if you’re in the corps de ballet of any ballet company and you’re a boy, suddenly you’re a choreographer. I don’t really understand that. You’ve been looking at the back of everyone for your whole career. [Big laugh.] It’s like wait, how do you … oh, fine. It’s crazy. And I wish ‘em all luck. I’m all for dancing. It’s just that I don’t see a lot that I like that much.”

What he does like is sharing his dance with other cultures and learning from theirs. “I go to Asia a lot. People want to see what you do and you get to see what they do. I love that. It’s not like becoming fake Cambodian when I go to their country, but to notice and respect and to adore what they do. I love to see traditional dance and music and whatever crazy new thing they’re doing. I’m not a big tourist; I’m more of a cultural vampire.”

Morris is travelling to Perth with his company. “I know I’m eager to go, and I’m not going to talk about how far away it is, because if you live in Perth it’s everything else that’s far away,” he says with undeniable logic. “You’re right where you belong if you’re in Perth.”

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