Morris' Golden Girl

January 31, 2015

Mark Morris dancer Laurel Lynch makes her presence felt onstage without distracting from the collective.

Lynch in 
Excursions; Photo by Nathanial Brooks, Courtesy MMDG

Sitting down for a bite after a day of rehearsals, Laurel Lynch looks remarkably relaxed and fresh-faced. There’s something simultaneously glowing and reticent about her, an undeniable presence mixed with modesty. You’d never guess from her calm demeanor that in a few hours she’ll be departing on a three-week tour that will take her to Scotland, Italy, Switzerland and China with the Mark Morris Dance Group, which she’s been a member of since 2007.

This is one of her most striking features onstage as well. Tall, strong-bodied, short-haired, she calls attention to herself by dancing with a mixture of amplitude, groundedness and rhythmic clarity. She makes you feel the stretch of a rubato—particularly through the use of her broad, expressive back—as well as the snap in a syncopated rhythm. Her size, a whisper over five foot nine, imbues each movement with weight and majesty. “She has dramatic capacity, dance chops, stature, grandeur, power, intelligence,” crows Mark Morris.

Recently, Morris has been drawing upon these qualities with growing frequency. With its emphasis on the collective, Morris’s choreography is not a vehicle for showy virtuosity, and yet Lynch’s presence in an ensemble makes itself felt. In 2011, he gave her a light-footed solo in “Sally in our alley,” part of the dance suite The Muir, set to Beethoven’s arrangement of Scottish and Irish folk songs. Dressed in a long, wafting gown, Lynch glided across the stage, arms stretched, chest open, simultaneously sylph-like and strong. Her footwork was dainty, but her movement quality was anything but.

In 2013, he entrusted her with one of his most famous and fascinating creations, the dual role of Dido and the evil Sorceress in his Dido and Aeneas (1989). It is a role he himself has performed—memorably—many times, and one that requires extremes of dignity and depravity, not to mention stamina. Alastair Macaulay, of The New York Times, spoke of the “lusciously pliant physicality” of Lynch’s Dido and of the “happily hellish” quality of her interpretation of the queen’s nemesis. “It changed me as a dancer,” she says.

Above: Lynch with Spencer Ramirez in 
Dido and Aeneas; Photo by Hilary Scott, Courtesy MMDG

Lynch was born in 1981 in Petaluma, California (population 59,000), the only child of an elementary school teacher and a veterinarian. She started ballet lessons at age 3 with the Petaluma School of Ballet. From an early age, Lynch was passionate and serious about her art. So much so, that when, at 15, she saw a performance of Morris’s The Hard Nut, a gently satirical take on The Nutcracker, “I was a little offended” on ballet’s behalf. The tone was too impertinent, too broad for her taste.

During those years at the Petaluma School of Ballet and, later, with the affiliated Petaluma City Ballet troupe, no one ever said outright that her height might prove a barrier to a ballet career. She nevertheless began to worry: It was hard to find men tall enough to partner her on pointe. When she reached Juilliard, then-director Benjamin Harkarvy confirmed her suspicions that her body wasn’t quite right for ballet. “I needed to hear it from a trusted authority in order to really let it go,” she says. Yet new horizons opened up. At Juilliard, she danced in the works of choreographers like José Limón, Ohad Naharin and Robert Battle. After graduation in 2003, she followed the well-worn path to Europe for an audition tour to look for employment but, as she puts it, “it didn’t take.”

Back in New York, she started freelancing for a handful of choreographers, including Dušan Týnek, who, like Morris, favors “serious” music and uses quite a bit of ballet vocabulary. On the advice of several friends, Lynch also began taking master classes at the Mark Morris Dance Center. She responded instinctively to the complex footwork and musical logic of Morris’s style: “I already knew then that I wanted to dance for him.” She attended as many performances by the ensemble as she could. Morris was encouraging, and in 2006 he asked her to join as an apprentice. He was in the process of creating Mozart Dances, an evening-length dance that premiered at Lincoln Center later that summer.

Mozart Dances
was her debut with the company, and it took place in front of thousands of people. It was at that moment that she internalized “what a big deal he really was.” It took her a few months to adjust to this realization. To make up for the nerves there was the excitement of dancing to live music at every performance, a Morris trademark. “There’s a vibration that I feel onstage as I wait for a phrase of music to end,” she told the Vail Daily in 2011, “anything is possible in that moment.”

It took some time to carve out an identity in a troupe of strong personalities. Lynch came in just as several company stalwarts were beginning to retire. The culture of the group was evolving, mellowing somewhat. There was also Morris’s demanding work style to adjust to. “I had to learn to fully trust Mark,” she says. “He’s so intelligent and so opinionated that it can sometimes be difficult to find room for my own decisions and opinions.” At the same time, she says working with him is one of the most invigorating aspects of life in the company: “Those rehearsals when Mark is excited and shouting directions and suggestions and I am open and receptive…are the most fulfilling and productive of my job.” With time, her confidence has grown; she trusts her instincts, which allows her, in turn, to be more open to Morris’s direction.

Lynch (center) in 
L’Allegro; Photo by Elaine Mayson, Courtesy MMDG

Lynch’s independence of spirit is one of the qualities Morris most admires: “I like that she is stubborn: as a dancer, as a feminist, as an artist. She does what she wants, and does it thoroughly.” He adds, revealingly, “She’s better with dancing than with words.” The two share a strong mutual respect and a complete devotion to the work. But Lynch also feels the need, sometimes, to be on her own, away from the company. Whenever she has time off, she likes to hike and sleep under the stars. Eventually, when she stops dancing, she says she’ll probably head back West, where the hiking options are better. “I want to have another life after dance, go to college, study writing, maybe pottery,” she says, somewhat vaguely. But that won’t be for a while, judging by the current trajectory of her career.

For now, she’s making the most of the opportunities Morris throws her way. Last year, in his staging of the Handel opera Acis and Galatea, he gave her a robust, martial dance—half step-dance, half Grecian frieze come to life—which she performed during the tenor’s aria “Love sounds th’alarm.” She performed it alone, in a diagonal across the stage. Then, as she slipped into the wings, four pairs of men followed in her wake. It seemed significant that it took eight men to do what she had accomplished alone.

Marina Harss is a freelance dance writer in New York City.