'Everybody's Other Than Everybody Else': Choreographer Mark Morris

Oct 19, 2019
Originally published on October 19, 2019 11:08 am

When Mark Morris was a 6-year-old in Seattle, he'd stuff his feet into Tupperware juice cups so he could walk en pointe. In essence, it worked.

Morris grew up to become a celebrated dancer, choreographer and director. He founded his own company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, in his twenties, then took over the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and has gone on to create and collaborate with most of the world's great dancers and companies on signature works that include Gloria, Dido and Aeneas, a controversial Nutcracker, and Falling Down Stairs (with Yo-Yo Ma).

Mark Morris has written a memoir about dance, identity and ingenuity, hits and flops, goose and mescaline holiday dinners with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Written with Wesley Stace, it's called Out Loud.


Interview Highlights

On being subjected to "sissy tests" in gym class, and putting the experience into his dance Jr. High

I have to tell you, a very good friend of mine — my best friend, [fashion designer] Isaac Mizrahi — I said [to him] something a long time ago which was true. I told him that, you know, if it weren't for bullies, how would I know I was a sissy? And I was dancing already from a very young age. So to me, it was just kind of degrading, a little bit humiliating, not much fun. And you know, I didn't like that kind of competition. I was an "other," as people call now. But you know, everybody's other than everybody else. ...

I used what was called the "sissy test" — you know, look at your fingernails; if you do it a certain way, you're a butch or a femme. But it turned into a little bit of a look back when I made up a dance based on the quotidian humiliations of junior high school — that age, that degree of development and that confusion and annoyance that happens.

On a traumatic year of his life, as a teenager

That must have been the fire in our house and the car accident; not long after that, my father died. So that was a lot of horrible things. I imagined every airplane flying overhead would crash into me directly. You know, it's like: Well, what about the other 300 people on the plane? That didn't occur to me. It was just that here I am, walking down the street, and there is a plane. That's it — that's my death warrant.

On the advice of his late father

So of course, my father wanted me to go to college, and I had no intention of doing that, because I was already dancing and I was already a real smartypants. And so, you know, he wanted me to know how to type, to have something to fall back on — which everybody wishes for his child. So I very, very reluctantly learned how to do that. But I also learned how to cook, and how to very badly sight-read playing the piano, and how to read and write bad juvenile poetry ... as opposed to the other kind of juvenile poetry. I was always doing what we would term creative ventures, you know. So I wasn't told that I was not qualified for something or that I wasn't good enough to do it. It was like: Go ahead and see how it goes — and be sure to learn how to type.

On his Dances for the Future program of works to be premiered after his death

Oh my. Yes, Dances for the Future is my answer to the big question of legacy. I choreograph all the time. I choreograph whether I have some place to debut a piece or not. So I'm making up dances like I always do, which is in the studio with the dancers. They're notated, filmed, recorded, designed and taught to other people through the age-old dance tradition of training younger people and teaching them the moves. And so when you leave the company, you teach your part to somebody; we re-rehearse it. But no one sees the finished piece until it's time. So I'm hoping to release one a year or so — posthumously, I imagine — for a long time.

I guess once I finish a dance and release it to the public and we're performing it, I'm kind of done. ... Well, I love watching it, and I love watching other people's work too if it's really good and interesting. But you know, the most exciting part is also very often the most frustrating part: trying to finish something or get it just right or get across something that I'm not sure what it is until it happens.

Erin Covey and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Mark Morris was a 6-year-old in Seattle, he'd stuff his feet into Tupperware juice cups so he could walk en pointe. I guess it worked. He grew up to be a celebrated dancer, choreographer, director and creator. He founded his own company in his 20s, then took over the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and has gone on to create and collaborate with most of the world's great dancers and companies on signature works that include "Gloria," "Dido and Aeneas," a controversial "Nutcracker" and "Falling Down Stairs" with Yo-Yo Ma.

Mark Morris has written a memoir about dance, identity and ingenuity, hits, flops and goose and mescaline holiday dinners with Mikhail Baryshnikov - his memoir "Out Loud," written with Wesley Stace. Mark Morris joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK MORRIS: Oh, you bet. I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: I have to say there's a chilling section in this book when you talk about gym class and, yeah, the sissy test.

MORRIS: Oh, yeah. I have to tell you a very good friend of mine, my best friend Isaac Mizrahi - I said something a long time ago which was true. I told him that, you know, if it weren't for bullies, how would I know I was a sissy? But I wasn't interested in sports, and I was dancing already from a very young age. So to me, it was just kind of degrading, a little bit humiliating, not much fun. And, you know, I didn't like that kind of competition. I was an other, as people call them now. But, you know, everybody's other than everybody else.

SIMON: You put this into your dance "Jr. High," didn't you?

MORRIS: Yes, I used what was called the sissy test. You know, look at your fingernails. If you do it a certain way, you're a butch or a femme. But it turned into a little bit of a look back when I made up a dance based on the quotidian humiliations of junior high school - that age, that degree of development and that sort of confusion and annoyance that happens.

SIMON: Yeah. You did have, as you note in the book, just about the most horrible single year I think could be imagined.

MORRIS: Right. That must've been the fire in our house and a car accident. Not long after that, my father died. So that was a lot of horrible things.

SIMON: Yeah.

MORRIS: I imagined every airplane flying overhead would crash into me directly. You know, it's like, well, what about the other 300 people on the plane? That didn't occur to me. It was just that here I am walking down the street, and there's a plane. That's it. That's my death warrant.

SIMON: I wonder, and I say this as someone who lost his father when I was 16, did it wind up making you really want to make a mark in life?

MORRIS: Oh, let's see. So, of course, my father wanted me to go to college, and I had no intention of doing that because I was already dancing and I was already a real smarty-pants. And so, you know, he wanted me to know how to type to have something to fall back on, which everybody wishes for his child.

SIMON: Yeah.

MORRIS: So I very, very reluctantly learned how to do that. But I also learned how to cook and how to very badly sight-read playing the piano and how to read and write bad juvenile poetry. So I was like - I was - as opposed to the other kind of juvenile poetry. I was always doing sort of what we would term creative ventures, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

MORRIS: So I wasn't told that I was not qualified for something or that I wasn't good enough to do it. It was like, you go ahead and see how it goes, and be sure to learn how to type.

SIMON: Yeah. Are you storing what amounts to a repository of dances that'll outlive you?

MORRIS: Oh, my. Yes, Dances for the Future is my answer to the big question of legacy. I choreograph all the time. I choreograph whether I have some place to debut a piece or not. So I'm making up dances like I always do, which is in the studio with the dancers. They're notated, filmed, recorded, designed and taught to other people through the age-old dance tradition of training younger people and teaching them the moves. And so when you leave the company, you teach your part to somebody. We re-rehearse it, but no one sees the finished piece until it's time. So I'm hoping to release one a year or so posthumously, I imagine, for a long time.

SIMON: What's satisfying about preparing dances you'll never get to see?

MORRIS: I guess once I finish a dance and release it to the public and we're performing it, I'm kind of done.

SIMON: So the enjoyment's in the creation.

MORRIS: Yeah. Well, and I love watching it. Like, I love watching other people's work, too, if it's really good and interesting. But, you know, the most exciting part is also very often the most frustrating part - trying to finish something or get it just right or get across something that I'm not sure what it is until it happens.

SIMON: Mark Morris - his memoir, "Out Loud" - thanks so much for being with us.

MORRIS: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.