Pioneer Dance

‘Addicted to Carnatic music’: Mark Morris

Mark Morris’s Dance Group performing Sounds of India, part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, on October 29, 2016.   | Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger.

In the big wide world of modern dance, opera and ballet, Mark Morris is a towering figure. The New York Times has described him as “the most successful and influential choreographer alive, and indisputably the most musical.” He was born in Seattle in 1956 and formed the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980 and has since created more than 160 works for the company. His early training in many dance disciplines including ballet moulded his special approach to choreography. After blazing a successful trail as the Director of Dance at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, he returned to New York to present his choreography and his company in prestigious institutions, received many awards, and earned the accolades he richly deserved.

Over the past two decades, I have had the distinct privilege of knowing him, his work, his dancers, and his dance centre in Brooklyn New York. Each work of his from the 1980s onwards has been amazing for the sheer originality of his choreography and the intensity of his involvement with music. His early masterpiece, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” based on Milton’s poetry and using the music of Handel, which I witnessed at one of the Kennedy Center shows, swept me off my feet.

Dido and Aeneas

Morris became famous for dancing as both Dido and the Sorceress in the dance version of the opera Dido and Aeneas. His version of the Nutcracker with the music of Tchaikovsky, The Hard Nut, is an all time favourite with audiences. The list of his creations is long and remarkable for its variety. His Romeo and Juliet based on music by Prokofiev is probably the only one on the theme in modern dance.

Most recently he created a new work titled ‘Pepperland,’ which was premiered in Liverpool to celebrate the Beatles and their music. His works which I have seen on stage or witnessed at rehearsals emphasise the fact that Mark’s originality is natural, his wit spontaneous and his imagination the trait of a fine intellect. I have seen him dance a solo brilliantly on stage, and more recently enjoyed the reprise of a solo he had choreographed for himself: “O Rangasayee,” as sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi, performed by a young dancer of his group.

Mark Morris is a much sought after choreographer by ballet companies and opera groups like San Francisco Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the American Ballet Theatre and Grand Ballet Canadiens, among others. He does not shy away from addressing big and provocative themes through creative choreography. His collaborations with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble have won rave notices. His choreography for Bach’s Third Suite for the cello, titled ‘Falling Down Stairs,’ won an Emmy award for Outstanding Classical Dance-Music Program. He founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov, well-known ballet dancer, in 1990, and has choreographed dances specially for him.

Mark Morris is known for his subtlety and humour besides being eclectic in his choice of music as well as dance techniques. “His work could be hilarious, shocking, lyrical, raw, beautiful and satirical without being vulgar,” says one writer. Another says, “the movements and gestures are drawn from modern and Indian dance, European folk dance and sign language for the deaf.”

A legend in his lifetime, critics, audiences and people with whom he has collaborated all agree that Morris he is “his generation’s one and only.” A definitive biography of Mark by Joan Acocella of The New Yorker, is the best introduction to this multi-faceted personality. He heads a vibrant and busy institution, the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York. Here he brings the community into his fold in the dance school, directs one of the biggest dance troupes in the U.S., and commands a big budget for his projects, supported by many institutions. He tours both at home and around the world with a hectic year round schedule, while constantly creating new works.

Much honoured

Mark has received innumerable awards over the years and like the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society, and the Samuel H.Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement, to mention only a few. He has been honoured with at least a dozen honorary doctorates by renowned universities, has taught at some of the most prestigious, and has been the only choreographer to be invited to be part of high profile music festivals like the Mostly Mozart at the Lincoln Center and the famous Tanglewood Music Center.

Mark is a sharp witted engaging conversationalist, who is unassuming about his celebrity status. He is interested in world music and literature. His interviews in the media are a delight to watch and read. He is an enthusiastic “foodie,” who is greeted with familiarity at some of the best restaurants in New York, London and wherever else he travels. He is also an adventurous chef who delights in entertaining close friends with his special gourmet recipes. He lives in Manhattan and in the summer, ventures out to do his shopping wearing a favourite Khadi dhoti and bush shirt. An artist extraordinaire, he has been at the top of the world of dance for decades, indulging in his magnificent passions — Dance and Music.

My questions put to Mark:

I have seen your choreography in many productions... tell us something about the musicality of your approach.

I always work from music. I consider myself a musician in the form of a choreographer. In general I choose music that is rich enough to bear repeated listening and performing. I employ music from many eras and sources, from solo piano to full orchestra, chorus, and soloists. Most important, I must be attracted on many levels: rhythm, tone, instrumentation, suspense, harmony, melody, text (if vocal music or Opera). I occasionally commission new music from composers. I study the score deeply, listen intently, and only then start the work of choreographing and staging a choreo-musical performance piece. I only work with live musicians in performance, rehearsal, and class. A rare practice where I live.

Shringara or Love is the essential core of Bharatanatyam... How does your new magnum opus Layla and Majnun treat Love? And how did the Azerbaijani music inspire you?

I can say that, fundamentally, all my work centres on various aspects or modes of Love. Of course, the various rasas, under various labels are manifest in all the lyric arts of the world, and particularly in dance. “Layla and Majnun,” is concerned with Divine Love, not exclusively the Romantic or the interpersonal. Let’s call it Universal. The basis of the music, the traditional accompanied vocal art, Mugham, is profound and ecstatic. The strict improvisation is endlessly opening up to new vistas and possibilities. Similar to many traditions such as Flamenco, Qawwali, the Blues, and Fado.

You have been to the Music Season in Chennai. your impressions?

I was first smitten with Carnatic music on a brief, life changing tour with a dance company in 1981. I was already somewhat familiar with some great Hindustani artistes and their music. But frankly, on first hearing M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Tyagaraja, it was love at first sight! I have since visited Chennai every two years or so, specifically for the Music and Dance Festival. I may not qualify as a Rasika, but I’m certainly an ardent admirer, an informed amateur. To sum up: Carnatic music possesses an irresistible Swing, Beat, Imagination, Structure and History. I find it addictive and thrilling


Mark Morris will inaugurate the dance festival at the Music Academy on January 3, 2018, at 5.30 p.m, when the title Nritya Kalanidhi will be conferred on Lakshmi Viswanathan. He will also inaugurate and address the dance conference at the Music Academy on January 5 at 8.30 a.m.

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