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Mark Morris Makes History

When Mark Morris Dance Group comes to the Joyce Theater August 1-12, the two-week engagement will be one for the dance history books. In a seemingly long overdue convergence, particularly given the longevity of both organizations, the company will make their debut at one of New York City’s most popular dance venues.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Grand Duo,” Seattle, 2022. Photograph by Jim Coleman

The Dance Group was founded in 1980 and was forced to celebrate its 40th anniversary digitally. But their dance and signature live music is back and last March saw the much-lauded revival of Morris’ iconic “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Most recently the Dance Group has been touring a new evening-length work “The Look of Love,” set to a score of 13 Burt Bacharach songs. 

But for the Joyce, the company switches gears to offer eight different works in two programs, including one stage premiere and one world premiere. Nestled among these newer works and favorites are rarely performed works like “Castor and Pollux,” which was last seen in 1981. 

Meantime, Morris continues to make work for the company’s “Dances for the Future” initiative—a project initially proposed by executive director Nancy Umanoff and inspired by Katie Paterson’s 100-year-long art project Future Library—in order for the company to premiere dances after he is gone. 

“We decided to put a dance in the pan and bring it out when I'm beyond choreographing, meaning probably dead, but not necessarily,” says Morris. “I want the company to have dances to be released as world premieres periodically to keep the repertory alive.”

The dances are “designed, choreographed, notated, recorded in every possible way,” says Morris, who announced the initiative in 2019. “When people leave the company, they pass it on to the people who are staying with the company. The work is recast and rehearsed every once in a while. It's absolutely meant to perpetuate my company, the dancers in it, and the people who watch the work. I won't know, I'll be done. So I can't promise it'll be good. But I hope so.”

But in a phone conversation in late July, Morris is keener to talk about the present moment, including what makes The Joyce a unique venue and the thread running through these two wide-ranging programs. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 Mark Morris Dance Group in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

How is it that Mark Morris Dance Group never performed at the Joyce Theater until now? 

Most of the work I do is in bigger halls, or if I do smaller repertory shows, this sort of chamber-size stuff, I do that periodically at my building. It doesn't hold that many people, but that's where I show these sorts of things because often when I'm doing shows in New York, they're bigger productions in big theaters. We wanted to perform in New York, and we didn't have work here, so we decided to produce a two-week season at the Joyce, which is a very particular place. You know, it was a movie theater so there's no place to fly anything in or out. There's no real crossover, there's no real pitch for music. But the stage itself is great. And I go there all the time—I like it.  

We're doing the work that fits there on purpose. We're not doing any music bigger than a quartet. And most of the dances are 20 minutes. Each show is four pieces that are very different, one from the other. We wanted to present these intimate—it just means small—pieces, some of which we haven't done for a while. There's a very brand-new piece, and a very old piece, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. 

I'm always so excited when I'm at the Joyce and someone's using live music.

Well, yeah, that rarely happens, frankly, because it's pretty hard to do. 

The music and some of the technical elements played into the curation of the programs. Was there a theme or anything else that went into the selection of the rarely seen works, like “Castor and Pollux”?

It's what I wanted to do. Many of the dancers haven't been in any of these pieces before. It's new to a lot of them. I wanted a big variety of stuff. And we haven't done many of these in New York.

And “Castor and Pollux” has never been done [again] because I only work with live music, and this is a recording. But the two pieces on there [that use] recorded music are there because they can't be done live. It's not hypocritical. It's just that one work [“A Wooden Tree”] uses music recorded personally [by Ivor Cutler] that he plays and sings, and he died about 30 years ago. And the other, “Castor and Pollux,” is Harry Partch music, which is impossible to do with live music at this moment, because the instruments are very specific and gigantic. “Castor and Pollux” is not a very long piece, but it's a very early one, so I want to show it. Everything else is piano, string quartet, percussion. It's all chamber music and the pieces will fit on the stage. It's very much varied in every way, in tone and in music, and I hope, in the choreography. I see it as a program that takes two weeks to watch. Everybody should come twice. 

Mark Morris Dance Group in “All Fours.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

There is also a world premiere, “A minor Dance,” set to a Bach partita. How long has that work been in development? Was it pre-Covid?

Pre-Covid doesn’t count. Covid erased everything. And it continues to. I've been working on it for a long time, a number of months, and I just finished it the other day. It’s been very difficult to get everyone in rehearsals because of all of that. It's just really been tough coming back, and now we're back. And so this dance just finished and it's for six people and piano. 

You've been outspoken before about how Covid has devastated the dance community and how rough it's been coming back. Where do you think we're at now? Or rather, where are you and your company at now?

I don't want to talk about me. In a very specific way, we are in what we would call hospitality, or entertainment, or something like that tourist industry, meaning live performance, restaurants, airlines, all of this stuff that no one was able to do. We travel and perform, and we weren’t able to travel or perform for at least a couple of years. And so that obviously completely changes everything, and it's very difficult. It's not gone, but it's getting better. The climate and the politics are another story. But we're back at shows and people are coming. I will mention me in that I'm going out more than I did for the last several years, traveling, seeing shows with more people than just a few, going out to restaurants and stuff. I feel less tentative, but it's still very dicey. I'm delighted and thrilled that we're doing these shows, and we've been working really hard, and things have been going pretty well. Except the forest fires in Canada, etc. I keep bringing in those things because they affect everything. But the fact is we're a couple of people short of what we have been at the largest of my company, and we don't have an enormous amount of work. So this is a wonderful end to a year and beginning for the next season. We're very optimistic, and it's selling really well. And this is why we exist, to put on these shows.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “A Wooden Tree,” London, 2013. Photograph by Elaine Mayson

What has the process been like for the dancers as they dive into so many different works from different time periods? Have you been seeing new things in them? Have they been finding new things in the work? 

I don't know what they find. I know that we work together, and everything looks really good. We're ready to go. We're doing what we always do. We just have more shows. Getting that together is great, and stamina, and that routine—it's rehearsing and repeating. The shows are longer, they're more pieces than we've done in a long time. We've mostly been doing evening-length shows that are an hour or so on tour, so this is a lot more. It's quite a bit more dancing and it's more information. There are eight pieces over two weeks. So that's a lot for not that big of a company. But we've been aiming for this for a long time, so we're excited, certainly.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

comments

Jane Troy

I saw the show last night at the Joyce. It was fabulous. It will be so wonderful to see these dances, and to see them again. I agree, I must see them at least twice (and really, more than that, but it takes time) to appreciate them fully.

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