Reading and Watching Mark Morris, Pre- and Post-The Stuff

When and how to pick up much less finish a book is always a mixed bag, especially when the collapse of the world order and the rapid transformation of art forms you’ve devoted your life and career to are playing out at the same time. As the memes have reminded, 2020 has already done a number on all our plans, but I finally caught up on some of my dance reading goals.

Since since March 6 when I last saw a live dance performance – the first and only performance of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by San Francisco Ballet, which was as perfect as one could hope for – I finished several dance books. I hadn’t intended to read any of these as a way of navigating the strange moment we are living through, and yet like everything these days, you can’t help but process everything through a COVID lens.

Here’s the first in a series of dance reading reports.

Mark Morris and Wesley Stace, Out Loud: A Memoir

Like all memoirs, Mark Morris’s memoir was always already going to be suffused with nostalgia, and the book catalogs with care and and even more careful score-settling his many interactions with family, partners, lovers, enemies, frenemies, collaborators, patrons, and critics. The book now almost reads like a report from an alien world, when people travel and perform for large groups of in person audiences and hold rehearsals and celebrations in cramped interior spaces.

Out Loud is everything one might expect from an iconoclast who finds himself about as firmly ensconced in the arts establishment as is possible. Indeed what’s so fascinating about Morris’s career–and why it’s thrilling to read about it in his own (openly ghostwritten) words–is the incongruity of his outsider ethos and his Great Artist stature. You can give him MacArthur grant and put his name on a building across the street from BAM, but Morris still insistently inhabits an outsider position, the precocious queer kid from Seattle with musically omnivorous taste who couldn’t be bothered to finish high school and now has a half dozen Ivy League honorary doctorates.

And yet, for many decades Morris’s stature has been anything but incongruous with his ethos. In fact his stature, almost to his chagrin, it seems, has become inseparable from his ethos. Morris finds himself as one of the Last Great Choreographers of Modern Dance, one of the few canonical exponents of an art form that will not be canonical for too long, since we are finally getting over our addiction to canons. In this light, it’s equal parts cringeworthy and satisfying to hear Morris rail against political correctness and say that he doesn’t know why people freak out about bullying in schools because he is grateful he got roughed up (!?) because it made him figure out who he was. The fact that a radical outsider can end up as a grumpy old man screaming from the front porch is, at least for me, a weirdly hopeful message about how the center and periphery can shift in the course of one person’s lifetime.

As an arts administrator and collaborator, I was grateful to see Morris grant significant airtime to many key players who contributed so substantively to his success. Among them are dancer Tina Fehlandt, one of the founding members of Morris’s dance group, the originator of dozens of his most iconic roles, and now responsible for staging his dances on companies all over the world. MMDG Executive Director Nancy Umanoff also is given her due, given credit for everything from crisis management to capital fundraising and everything in between. I suspect that Nancy is presently working harder than ever and I hope that Tina will be back to work on the stage soon.

Earlier this year San Francisco Ballet performed Morris’s Leroy Anderson-scored Sandpaper Ballet, and on opening night I happened upon the Great Man himself in the lobby in the last moments of intermission. I briefly said hello and told him how much I was looking forward to Sandpaper. He was gracious but of course his parting words were, “Enjoy my ballet, or else!” delivered with a smile and a vigorous wag of the finger. Of course like everything Morris does, this phrase was delivered with deadly serious playfulness, and I knew I was going to enjoy the ballet before he told me I had to. (And of course I did.)

Prior to this encounter I had overheard other patrons discussing Out Loud, specifically the passages towards the end when he discussed the choreography he has prepared to be performed after his death. In our innocent pre-COVID bubble this endeavor seemed to be raising eyebrows and eliciting amused eye-rolling if not pearl-clutching. “I mean, that’s just so morbid and who does he think he is?” Of course nowadays it seems like a concept that’s nothing short of genius. Let’s hope that we don’t see those dance anytime soon and that Morris and Nancy and Tina are all washing their hands and resting up for whatever is to come.

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