Mark Morris Dance Group Celebrates its 25th Anniversary
with L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

On a Saturday afternoon in January Mark Morris is seated on stage at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End of Boston. The stage is set in the intimate living room mode common to the interview about to begin.

Choreographer Mark Morris has created over
125 works since coming to New York City
and starting his dance group in 1980.
(Photo by Amber Darragh).

Morris is listening to his praises being sung by Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer to 150 attendees at a Globe Talks event. As the introduction runs on Morris playfully fans his very large beige shawl across the oversized contemporary couch.  It is an exact color match, shawl to couch. No one in the audience misses the irony of the décor, and a restrained chuckling spreads through the theatre. Dyer wraps up his comments and turns to Morris, who by now is beaming like a TV game show host as he looks toward his viewers and shouts, “You can win this couch!”

Laughter erupts and the audience to performer tension that precedes gatherings of this type dissipates instantly. And in the hour-long discussion that follows Mark Morris will be at his best: bright, witty and charming, He is equal parts comedian and thoughtful, intelligent dance master — in the process providing intriguing insights into the mind of one of the world’s most important choreographers.

Morris is in Boston for the staging of L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, a feature of the Bank of America Celebrity Series at the Wang Center  L’Allegro, as it is usually referred to, is considered a masterpiece and one of the major artistic dance works of the modern era.  It is performed infrequently because it is an evening-length performance, a rarity in modern dance and requires a full orchestra and chorus which few venues can support. At the Wang Center L’Allegro is in concert with Emmanuel Music, a collective of singers and instrumentalist founded in 1970 by Artistic Director Craig Smith to perform the cantatas of J.S. Bach.

"I don't know any other group that tries to do
as much, as completely, with as much heart.
I've never met any group like this." Yo-Yo Ma.
(Photo by Ken Friedman)

L’Allegro was built on a foundation of three masters — Milton, Handel, and Blake — who inspired Morris to illuminate their work of poetry, music, and painting with dance. The music is from Handel’s oratorio of the same name, written in 1740, and the text from three poems — two by John Milton (c. 1632), L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and a third, Il Moderato, by Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens. The two Milton poems are a debate between joy and contemplation with the third poem by Jennens representing reason and the modern philosophical path. In 1812 William Blake painted 12 watercolors that illustrated the two Milton poems, as he too was inspired by their beauty. In the Morris staging the sets were designed by Adrianne Lobel. The shape, color, and texture of the large “Mark Rothko” inspired panels provide starkly beautiful visual accompaniment to the piece and make a substantial contribution to the work’s success.

The MMDG repertory, like most modern-dance groups, was crafted entirely out of Morris’ own dance style. His influences include ballet, modern, and post-modern, as well as folk dance. In conversation he’ll describe how, as a child of 7 or 8 listening to his Dad play piano, he learned to read music. After his father died, the Seattle church where they belonged secretly gave money so Morris could take lessons of his own.

"The musicality; the invention: the exhilarating sense that some
strange, new and wonderful form of fun had been brought into
the world was immediately evident." Mikhail Baryshnikov.
(Photo by D.Pierre)

When asked, however, if he listened to music to create dance he answers emphatically, “No, I have a pretty good ear, but I don’t visualize dance while I listen. I love music because of music.” In fact, he generally uses “non-dance” music that he considers less routine, less predictable. In other words, there are no Nutcracker Suites for Morris. “I don’t like being told what to do by a piece of music” he adds.

Thus, the attraction of L’Allegro where Morris says, “There is nothing you must do.” His insistence on live music is legendary. Occasionally, he will use recorded pieces for his dances, but he prefers “the raggedness of live music” as he describes it. “I’d rather have the little mistakes that occur live. “When pressed to explain Morris becomes animated, “Well, because that’s really music, otherwise it’s like going to the Met on Karaoke night!” he chides. “It’s the experience of living humans dancing, playing music and watching together — everyone is there in real time.”

Photo by Ken Friedman

Morris’ L’Allegro was conceived during the summer of 1988 when, as a 32-year-old choreographer, he began its construction. He wanted to make big pieces with lots of dancers, singers, and musicians, but the complicated L’Allegro, ultimately set with thirty-two interconnected dance sequences divided into two acts, would be a struggle to stage in the United States with its paltry arts funding. All that changed when Morris accepted the invitation to become director of dance in Belgium’s Theatre Royal de Monnaie.

Already a controversial character in New York where the critics were sharply divided — some saying he was the next great thing while others argued he was simply pulling their legs — Morris would now take his troupe to Belgium, a country with virtually no modern dance tradition. To complicate matters Morris was replacing Maurice Bejart, who had quit following a disagreement with Monnaie’s director, Gerard Mortier. Mortier was an unpopular man in Brussels, while Bejart was considered a local hero.

Some wondered what the odds were of Belgians bestowing their affection on his replacement. Morris sowed many seeds of critics’ discontent when, in an interview for Vanity Fair he told writer Charles Siebert, “Bejart is shit.” Another story told by Morris biographer Joan Acocella in her exceptional book recalls an early press conference where Morris was queried by a member of the European cultural press corps who, according to Acocella, is apt to take dance very seriously. When asked to explain his “philosophy of dance” Morris answered, “My philosophy of dance?” “My philosophy is, I make ‘em up and you watch ‘em.”  The story of his time in Brussels has been told many times — scathing reviews, indignant audiences, headlines screaming “Mark Morris, Go Home!”

The "Mark Rothko" inspired sets designed by
Adrianne Lobel create very large,complex
spaces within which the dancers perform.
(Photo by D. Pierre)

Out of the gloom that accompanied his early missteps, Morris found a furious energy pressing forward on a work three times longer than any of his previous pieces, with twice the cast and many, many times the budget. Miraculously, in a testament to his artistic imagination and perseverance, L’Allegro made its scheduled premiere at Monnaie, Belgian’s national opera house where many Belgians, including his critics, considered it a triumph.

But even those who praised it did not fully understand what they saw commenting instead on the “simplicity” of the dancers as they seemed not so much to be dancing as moving around the stage in a pleasant way. American reviewers who admired Morris trekked to Brussels and brought back the news: this work was everything, everything his early work had promised.

In 1990 the Morris troupe returned to tour the States and presented L’Allegro at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Biographer Joan Acocella recalls, “I have never seen an ovation such as the one that night. Conductor Nicholas McGegan made his final stroke, the dancers raised their faces to heaven and the spectators jumped to their feet, clapping and hallooing, to say Mark Morris, come home.”

Visit Webbandstand.comOn seeing L’Allegro at the premier Dale Harris of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Mr. Morris has created not simply a masterwork, but a masterwork on a scale hardly known in the U.S. outside the field of classical ballet.”

Eighteen years later perched comfortably on the Calderwood stage — and atop the world of modern dance — Morris is asked if he would answer the question about his philosophy any differently today. “No” he says, a touch of the old defiance still ringing in his voice, but then pausing he quotes another performer who said famously, “My philosophy is that life is a song and a dance.”

At the Wang Center L’Allegro plays to near-capacity over three weekend performances. At the Sunday matinee we are poised to witness what author Karen Campbell describes as “the choreographer’s trademark cheek and wit fused with movement of soaring splendor and heartbreaking pathos that takes the viewer on a whirlwind emotional and visceral journey.”

As the lights go down I see Mark Morris along with Nancy Umanoff, the company’s long-time Executive Director, slip from backstage to seats immediately behind ours. For a moment I anticipate listening over my shoulder to a Director’s commentary running through the performance, but for the most part they are silent. Like the rest of us they become absorbed in the visual and aural delights that dance before us. We do, as author Campbell suggests, travel a great distance in the ensuing two hours — being provoked, exhilarated and enlightened on the way. It is an enthralling final performance.

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Both acts completed, Morris makes his way back stage and appears for several rounds of bowing with dancers, singers, and musicians before an adoring audience showering the cast with thunderous applause. As the curtain lowers behind the proscenium for the last time I feel a broad smile reach across my face. I sense though, it’s not just the emotional high of the moment, but because I notice Morris is still wearing the beige shawl from Saturday afternoon.

Feature by Jim Hollister, Jetsetters Magazine Luxury Travel Editor.

After nearly 20 years without a permanent home, the Mark Morris Dance Center at the Erickson Building has opened at 3 Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, NY . It is the first building ever built by a single-choreographer company. The Mark Morris Dance Group has over 35 original dances in performance during their 25th Anniversary tour. For a complete schedule visit or call 718/624-8400.