Marching To a Different Drummer

“All I ever wanted to do was to make up dances and show them to people.”


Mark Morris has uttered that statement so often during the past three decades you suspect that the motto might be chiseled into the cornerstone of the Brooklyn building that bears his name. But, in reiterating that sentiment in a recent conversation, the choreographer was doing nothing less than reaffirming his trust in his own creative spirit and what, given time, space, and talent, it can generate.


This month, the Mark Morris Dance Group celebrates its 30th anniversary. Few single-choreographer companies make it this far without stumbling, and few have been so consistently productive, broken so many barriers, touched so many audiences, and garnered so many accolades.


It wasn’t always this way. MMDG began its odyssey with Morris, then 24, and nine of the Seattle-born choreographer’s pals cavorting in the Westbeth Cunningham studio on a fateful November evening.


They cavorted well. Four years later, the company found itself featured in the prestigious Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Debuts at the American Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow spread the word. A first London date won Morris an abiding British fan base. Then, just as his popularity was rising in this country, came the three years (1988–91) in Belgium, as resident dance company at Brussels’ Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. Here, some of the choreographer’s most enduring, large-scale works—Dido and Aeneas, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and The Hard Nut—were created.


The company’s rise in popularity since its return from Brussels has been irresistible. Spend an evening with Morris’ company and you will be drawn into his world. Morris peers into the heart and soul of his musical scores in a manner that often rivals Balanchine’s. He wields a wit that can be both gentle and corrosive. He connects emotionally with general audiences, who often equate modern dance with obscurity. He has eradicated that arbitrary distinction between narrative and abstraction; a Morris dance is always about something.


It is easy, also, to fall in love with Morris’ dancers. They come in all body types, sizes, and temperaments. They dominate the stage with supreme stylistic insight, unaffected brilliance, and an incomparable sense of ensemble, yet their humanity is what appeals most. So much so, that when one of the MMDG dancers retires, we respond to the departure with a nagging sense of loss, almost as if we have been jilted.


The Belgian sojourn influenced Morris significantly. In 1998, MMDG bought a derelict Fort Greene building and transformed it into a five-story, state-of-the-art dance center in late 2001. Substantial additions to the structure were completed over the next decade. The building, catty-corner to BAM, serves as more than the company’s home. It houses a free outreach program for 6 to 16-year-olds, in conjunction with Brooklyn public schools, and it offers all manner of dance classes for the public. The center is simply a vital part of its community.


“This place,” notes Morris, waving his arm around his spacious, memento-laden office, “was not part of my quest for world domination. It was never my original intention to have this center and the school. But friends who danced together turned into a company. That means we pay them, we give them health insurance, dressing rooms, hot showers, usually single rooms on the road, and days off after long travel days. Sometimes, they’re coming off four performances in a weekend and it can be tough.”


Brussels had accustomed Morris to the huge performance space and immense studios he found there. He also had a large orchestra at his disposal at the Monnaie, and he liked the way it influenced the movement. Soon, the company was performing exclusively to live music. In 1996, Morris founded the Mark Morris Music Ensemble, which includes a group of regular players and can expand to orchestral dimensions for larger pieces.


The company today comprises 18 dancers (with extras hired for the big works, like The Hard Nut). Morris maintains a large active repertoire, and the center, with its multiple rehearsal studios, allows him to keep it all fresh. “No one else can dance my repertoire as well as my dancers,” says Morris, “which is why I don’t loan it out, except to universities, as learning devices, and I’m all for that.”


When it comes to discussing current MMDG’s level of performance, Morris is not reticent. “Watching them dance in London recently, I realized that you can’t knock them over. I see that happening often to ballet dancers who are stretched and not grounded and fall down onstage. It’s not that my dancers are heavy. It’s a reflection on the training they receive from me.”


His dancers seem relatively free of injuries, and he tells you why. “First, they’re all adults and they’re smart about taking care of themselves; most are in their 30s. I just hired a boy who is 23-24 and that’s young for us. By 26, dancers are considered antiques in the ballet industry,” says Morris. “My work is not injurious. I won’t make up something that is damaging. I don’t, for example, give grand plié in fourth position; it results in too much torque on the joint.


“Also in rehearsal, I let them mark a lift if they’ve done it enough before. And we have a very humane schedule, with an hour for lunch. Everyone covers each other, so there’s never an emergency if someone is ill or injured. We can put it together in a minute.”


Lauren Grant, who has danced with Morris full-time since 1998, offers another perspective of her boss’ classes. “He’s a brilliant teacher, and ballet is a huge part of our day and it can be the most difficult and frustrating aspect of our job,” Grant says. “Like Balanchine, he’s slightly reinventing the language. Even the way you execute a tendu—he takes it apart and examines the quality of it. In most ballet classes, they care what the line looks like. For Mark, what matters is the texture of the action. It’s so nuanced; it gives you a very healthy supportive alignment.”


Today, as 30 years ago, Morris’ dancers are celebrated for their physical and temperamental individuality, their verve and their ability to fit in with what the choreographer calls “the culture” of the company. From the way he describes the audition process, it’s obvious he is seeking more than polished technique:


“A lot of dancers make assumptions about the ease and simplicity of my choreography, which is very, very not true. It’s not just a pointed foot and a flexed foot. It’s a pointed foot, a flexed foot, a stylishly relaxed foot, a slightly arched foot. It’s a very subtle process.”


Are today’s MMDG dancers different from those 25 years ago? “Certainly,” says Morris. “The training is different. Today, they’re more versatile. They have a bit of trouble with my early work—the ancient style, we call it—the dances I was doing until we went to Brussels. Back then I conceptualized a lot—no, it wasn’t tacky stuff. I would ask them to do things like, ‘lean over until you fall down,’ rather than, ‘lean over on five and fall down on one.’ Still, they do Gloria OK, but it comes from a different life style.”


Morris confesses that he is “fiercely protective” of his dancers and finds it almost impossible to fire them. His solution: “I hire them as apprentices for six months, and renew them, or not.”


Morris’ respect for his company’s members may explain why so many of them stay on to work with the organization in various capacities after they retire from the stage. It may also explain why they regard their experience in MMDG as more than a steady paycheck.


Maile Okamura, who joined the troupe in 2001, puts it this way: “It’s like spending time with your family seven hours a day. We get to know each other better than anyone else through our dancing, sensing our strengths and weaknesses.


“There’s a moment in Mozart Dances,” says Okamura, “when we all make a circle and begin to move. The most magical time is when you look into that circle and everybody is moving together. It’s so special, but I’m not sure that it comes across in performance. And, of course, Mark is great to hang out with. I love it that when he finishes a book he gives it away to the dancer who he thinks will most enjoy reading it.”


Grant feels transformed by the experience of working with Morris: “There are so many blessings and miracles in working, not just for a living choreographer, but a choreographer who is at the top of the field and continues to change the art form itself. Sometimes, you turn around and look back at the past year, and you realize how far you’ve come, not only as a dancer, but as an artist and a human being. This, simply, is our home.”



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor and San Francisco Chronicle dance correspondent.


Photo of Mozart Dances by Stephanie Bergert, Courtesy MMDG.



Upcoming Anniversary Dates (partial listing)


• MMDG tours to 20 cities including in Davis, CA; Tallahassee, FL; Fairfax, VA; NYC; Chicago; Princeton, NJ; and Scottsdale, AZ.


• The Hard Nut returns to BAM, Dec. 10–12 and Dec. 15–19


• Nixon in China to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera, various dates during Feb. 2–19, 2011


• Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare Harris Theater, Chicago, Feb. 25–27, 2011


• Program of premieres at Mark Morris Dance Center, March 2011


For more info, go to

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

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Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

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