Mark Morris, born in Seattle, Washington, formed the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980 and since then has created more than 120 works for the company. He was also director of dance at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the national opera house of Belgium, from 1988 until 1991, and in 1990 he founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He has received choreographic commissions from American Ballet Theatre and the Boston Ballet, and since 1994 has created six works for San Francisco Ballet. In 2001 he opened the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, which houses rehearsal space for the dance community, outreach programs for youth, and a school for all ages. While working on his ballet for the New Works Festival he spoke about his relationship with music and why he enjoys working with San Francisco Ballet.
BACKSTAGE: You started the Mark Morris Dance Group in your early 20s, in what as often thought of as the prime of a dance career. What drew you to choreography so early?
MORRIS: Well, I was choreographing from when I was 15. The first dance I made up that was very good, I was, I think, 15 years old. I'd actually been making up dances since before that, but this was the first one that was a real dance. I moved to New York when I was 19 and worked with several companies. I worked with Elliot Feld's company and Lar Lubovich's company and Laura Dean's company and Hannah Kahn's company, and I always was making up dances on my own. And so I decided that I would rather do that. I was still working with other companies in 1980 when I started my company. And then just less and less as I got more work with my company, I stopped working for other people. So I've had a company since then.
BACKSTAGE: Do you experiment with choreography or movement sequences on yourself before setting them on a dance company?
MORRIS: I don't experiment at all. I make up dances on the dancers. I do a great deal of homework because I always work from music, so I study, of course. I do whatever research I'm doing—reading, thinking, studying the score. I do a great deal of score preparation, and then I make up the dances in the room with the dancers, with my company, and I also do that when I work with San Francisco Ballet or also if I'm directing an opera. I do everything in the room with the people who are going to be performing it. I don't think it's interesting—for me, anyway—to make up a dance that feels good for me to do. I never did that. Even choreographing solos for myself, I'd choreograph them on other people and then learn them. So I try stuff. I wouldn't call it experimentation. I'd call it choreography.
BACKSTAGE: How much of the movement is inspired by the particular group of dancers that you're working with?
MORRIS: I wouldn't say that I'm inspired by people. I would say that I work with people. You know, it's not like a miracle. It's work—it's hard work all the time. And I have a company of about 20 full-time dancers, and that's their job, is to do my work. So the preparation I do is all thought, and the moves that I come up with are absolutely to be done by the people I'm choreographing them on, but I also develop material in the room. Even if it's going to be a solo or a duet, I have everybody involved in the piece learn everything because then everybody knows what's happening. Very often in the ballet industry, people only know the parts that they do themselves, and they don't understand the structure or the big picture of the whole piece of choreography. Not that dancers need to be interested in the craft of choreography, but it sure helps you dance better when you do. So I encourage that, and in my company it's the way we work always. It's unusual in the ballet industry to do that, but it works great.
BACKSTAGE: Who or what are your greatest influences as a choreographer, and are they the same now as they were 10 or 20 years ago?
MORRIS: Probably the biggest influence on me as an artist, as a choreographer, I would say probably the two composers Handel and Haydn and the composer Lou Harrison probably, and there are many visual artists who I find interesting. The poet Frank O'Hara is a big interest of mine. Many different people for many different reasons. George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, the great, great choreographer and movie director Busby Berkeley and the genius American treasure Merce Cunningham, who's living and is still choreographing exquisitely. And, you know, plus dancers, everybody I meet. You know, I'm alive in the world so I take everything wherever I can find it.
BACKSTAGE: When working with San Francisco Ballet, do the dancers and the audiences here influence your work in any particular way that's different from elsewhere?
MORRIS: I work in San Francisco Ballet because it's a very, very good ballet company. My chief interest is the Mark Morris Dance Group, my company, and then I occasionally do a commission for a ballet company. It's usually San Francisco Ballet because I think it's a very fine company, and they do my work well and consistently keep it in good shape. Then I also work in opera. I direct operas and, you know, I do a lot of things. So really every individual, every day is a different experience.
BACKSTAGE: What interested you about participating in the New Works Festival? In this huge chunk of 10 world premieres, do you have any thoughts about what your ballet will be remembered for?
MORRIS: I have no interest in what my ballet would be remembered for. I'm interested in making very good work that stands up on its own. And so the other nine choreographers, I know all of them and I wish them luck but that doesn't affect me in any way. The smart thing that Helgi is doing, instead of doing a retrospective he's doing whatever the opposite of a retrospective is. It's all new and commissioned work. I think that's brilliant. It's a really good idea for the company, it's a really good idea for the dancers and, you know, I'm happy to participate in it. It's always a delight to work with the dancers here.