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Flash Interview, 10-3: The Morris Files
But Second, a School

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2001 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- I spoke with Mark Morris by phone last Friday. The Mark Morris Dance Group was in Southern California performing "Platee" before opening here in Berkeley tonight at the Zellerbach Hall of Cal Performances. I asked Morris if the company had been on tour at the time of the recent terrorist attacks. He had been in New York, but had then come out West to see American Ballet Theatre's recent performance in Berkeley. (ABT was performing "Gong," which he had choreographed for it last spring, so he got to see his friends in the company.) He said it had been very hard on the ABT dancers, and they had been "freaking out" as it was impossible to reach friends and families back in NYC by phone. The day before the interview I received word that the pieces for the mixed bill program had been changed and a preview of Morris's latest piece would replace two older works.

AT: Why did you decide to preview your new piece "V" in Berkeley before the premiere next month in London?

MM: It was finished and we wanted to show it. We've previewed and premiered a lot of pieces in Berkeley and the other pieces it's replacing we've done before [in Berkeley]. In the state of the world it seemed like the right thing to do. Not that it has any political aspirations of any kind. It's a fabulous, beautiful, new dance and I thought it would be a good "lift."

AT: I just read the speech you gave in 1998 at the Midwest Arts Conference where you emphasize the importance of live performance. This is really the right moment to be putting it out there.

MM: Exactly. I'm not trying to convert anybody to anything. It's just a beautiful new dance and why not?

AT: Do you think that the recent events will have any affect on funding for the arts as people realize how much we depend on them emotionally, especially during difficult times?

MM: That would surprise me if it happened. Not just because it's my job, but I think that collecting and watching and listening to high-level art is a deeply important thing for the society. It's not saving people's lives directly, but it's a profoundly important experience for people and they want that. It's not a diversion, it's not to distract you from what is going on, but it's to bring people together.

AT: Going back to the new piece....

MM: Which one?

AT: "V." Does that stand for something?

MM: V [both laugh a lot]

AT: Does it really stand for something or is it just "V"?

MM: You'll see. A simple answer is that it's set to a quintet, and V is the Roman numeral for five. It's also a "V" and more than that I won't tell you. It's not a giant philosophy or anything, it's just the title of a dance, and it's appropriate.

AT: Were you commissioned to do this piece?

MM: I just wanted to make up a new dance. We moved in to our new studios in June and I had already scheduled the rehearsal time to create a new work for my company. It's for fourteen people and about half an hour long. And I have great musicians, so all of those things conspired to allow me make it. The New Works fund for my company is a particular pool of money that gives me the opportunity to choreograph new pieces. It wasn't commissioned, it was just time to make a new dance.

AT: You mentioned your new building. So how does it feel, after all these years, to have your own place?

MM: It's heaven. Not to sound arrogant, but it's about time. It's such a great relief to have someplace that is our headquarters, where we go every day. And you don't have to bring a giant bag with you wherever you go. Since it's all to our specifications, it's very comfortable. It doesn't make making up a dance easier, but everything around that is so much more relaxing.

AT: Does it have the capability to have performances in the building?

MM: Yes, the big studio on the top floor is big enough to allow us to recreate just about any stage that we perform on. In fact, "Platee," the opera we're doing on tour, was rehearsed there with a set and wings. It saved a great deal of stress in moving it into a theater. We had piano and harpsichord and the whole cast rehearsing it, which was wonderful luxury and also very efficient. Soon we'll be able to perform for about 150 people in there, and other groups will be performing there, too.

AT: Are you trying to target developing an interest in the neighborhood?

MM: Absolutely. Of course. It's not a desert island. We've started a school as well, which already has a big turnout. We have adult classes, beginner classes, professional classes and kid's classes in various kinds of dancing. Ballet, modern, West African and yoga. We will be expanding that as the need arises.

AT: Are you intending for the school to feed into the company?

MM: That's not the principal notion for it.

AT: In some places it is the reason for the school.

MM: It often doesn't work either. It's mostly just so that people have a place to take dancing lessons, and have a good time learning about it. It would be great if eventually some of the kids studying there end up in my company. I didn't go to any kind of conservatory, I went to a dancing school and that's what I want this to be. We also have an arrangement where we rent studio space to other arts organizations very, very cheaply. We got a New York State Arts Council grant to make that happen, so we could charge $10-12 an hour to not-for-profit groups. That's fabulous because there aren't many studios around.

AT: I'm glad to see that the vision is there that it's a community thing and not just about your company.

MM: It's not like we discovered Brooklyn. We're newcomers and we want to participate and belong there.

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