Mark Morris spoke to Listen at his office at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York. He formed the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980; the center, which serves as a space for Morris’s company, other companies and students from the community, opened in 2001. Morris — whose works include The Hard Nut, Gloria, Dido and Æneas and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato — understands classical music as well as any living choreographer. He can read scores, play the piano and conduct. And he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks.
You’ve said, ‘Everything I do is based on music. I like music more than I like anything else.’ How does the music dictate your approach to choreography?
It doesn’t dictate my approach to choreography; it dictates that I choreograph. It’s not ‘How would I do it differently if I didn’t go music-first?’ It is ‘This is why I’m choreographing.’ The No. 3 Kammermusik [indicating the Paul Hindemith score on his desk]: A friend of mine is a really great cellist, I like these pieces, and it’s a period of
time that I use a lot, so it’s like, ‘Oh! Why don’t I do one of these?’ So then I learn it and make up a dance to it. It’s not that I have this dance that needs musical accompaniment, this dramatic situation, and the Schoenberg String Trio would be perfect for that. Well, no, the Schoenberg String Trio is fabulous — and do I want to make up a dance to it? We pointed this out to each other, me and Ethan Iverson, who’s a very good friend of mine —
— the pianist for The Bad Plus.
Ethan was my music director for years and my pianist. I was saying how there has to be the boring part of the music because then there’s the fabulous payoff when the boring part is over.
It’s like the recitative.
Or Mozart trying to find his way back to the tonic at the end of that concerto. It’s like, ‘Okay, okay, I got it: rolling through every chord in the progression — fine. Is that exposition anymore or is it just filler?’ There’s filler and there are boring bits.
[Singing à la Don Giovanni:] ‘Hello! Who is it? Come in!’
Yes, and that’s the thing: When I’ve cut music — which I do rarely — as in the case of [Rameau’s] Platée, I cut some of the dance music, some of the repeats, because I don’t
need them anymore. I would never cut any of the recit or repeats in the vocal music, because it’s necessary. But if you need this rigaudon to have two more As and a B, well, I’m sorry, but you’ve lost them by then — c’mon, it’s show business!
So I said to Ethan, ‘You have to have the boring stuff, because if it’s not there, there’s no effect; it’s just this horizontal thing of music.’ And he said that it’s so interesting that we [choreographers] don’t have to use only the greatest music ever written. It’s not the greatest music of the canon that becomes a dance, because it’s not necessary
for it to do so.
Years ago I did a piece to Jean Francaix’ Trio for Strings in C major. And it’s a kooky little nothing-ish piece of music — you wish there was another instrument in it, it’s a little underpowered — and it’s wonderful, so it made me think of a particular kind of dance. And I made up a dance set at a sixth-grade party, and the dance is called My Party. And it kind of looks like kids at an awkward party, and it’s not a story or anything. But that music is this psychotic ‘la-la-la’ — you know, the thing about French music that people don’t like (the people who don’t like French music, and that’s half of everybody).
So, anyway, a lot of music that has been written for dance is just crappy, ’cause it’s so square and so not interesting.
It’s in eights.
Yeah, of course people imagine Baroque music is in eights. Paul Taylor imagines that all Baroque music is in eights, even though the seventeen is the same as the one and the phrase is nine — it’s never square, it’s thrilling!
So it doesn’t have to be the greatest piece in the repertory. Sometimes a piece of music is great and there’s no reason to make up a dance to it, ’cause why mess with it? Or it has to have a dance or it’s not very interesting. A good example is Four Temperaments, a great, great dance of George Balanchine, and an okay academic piece of music [by Hindemith]. If you just hear it, it’s ‘Okay, I understand how composition works,’ a boring lesson in how to write modernist music. And then the dance is one of the great genius works of all time.
Somebody proposed to me years ago to do Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus and I said no, because it’s really boring and not interesting. Music makes me make up dances, but I’m not that bullied by it. It has to be a particular piece of music. There are things that I’ve tried that just won’t turn into a dance and that’s fine, I don’t mind that. [Laughs.]