The Vagabond's Tale

Mark Morris Finally Gets his Dream House

Since 1980, Mark Morris has essentially directed his dance company from the backseat of a taxi. By fall, he'll finally have a home. It's about time.

After schlepping around for 20 years, seldom renting the same rehearsal space for more than a few weeks in a row, Morris is about to become an enlightened landlord. When the dust from a $4 million renovation clears, he and his troupe will settle into a dazzling pied-à-terre where dance can shed its image as a poor stepchild to music and theater.

Blueprints for the overhaul of the 86-year-old building on Lafayette Avenue—which sits catercorner to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, stripped to its steel frame—show a five-story jewel with translucent walls and a vaulted roof. Morris will work his magic in the upper room, a celestial white loft whose sprung floor will measure 3600 square feet, making it the city's biggest dance studio. Like two smaller studios downstairs, it will be free of columns and the windows will actually open.

There goes the neighborhood: Morris's work in progress on Lafayette Avenue.
photographs by Sylvia Plachy
There goes the neighborhood: Morris's work in progress on Lafayette Avenue.

The choreographer is not asking for the moon. "This isn't The Princess and the Pea, honey," says Morris, engaging as ever at 43. "I can't tell you how often I've started a new dance one week and then, because we had to move somewhere else, the piece totally changed shape."

In a city where decent rehearsal space has always been scarce, even the most celebrated choreographers can find themselves in a jam. Veteran dancemakers Trisha Brown and Paul Taylor, who have sublet their studios to Morris in the past, expect to lose their own leases—hers on West 61st Street, his on lower Broadway—within the next year. With the New 42nd Street Studios set to open this summer, and the Mark Morris Dance Center a few months later, some relief should be on the way. (Built for nearly $25 million on West 42nd just off Times Square, the "New 42" will hold 12 rehearsal studios, a 199-seat theater, and office space for the Parsons Dance Company, the Roundabout Theatre Company, and other performing arts troupes.)

Morris, who plans to rent out his studios for as little as $8 an hour, hopes to attract kids from Fort Greene as well as professional dancers. "I want it to be a neighborhood joint instead of a tower," he says. "I didn't go to an academy to learn dance. I went to a dance school."

The final bill should run $6 million, including $1 million to buy and gut the building and another million for an endowment to defray operating expenses. Rental income from the ground floor and mezzanine, where Morris envisions a jazz club or a restaurant, will also offset the carrying costs. The troupe has raised $5 million so far, with the city chipping in $1.5 million and Linda and Ken Rawlings contributing $1 million from the sale of their San Francisco-based Otis Spunkmeyer cookie company. Public appeals by Isabella Rossellini, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Yo-Yo Ma helped raise another $2.5 million, much of it from individuals. The company hopes to raise the final $1 million by the end of the year.

Morris has never let logistics interfere with getting his work done. Since forming the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, he's choreographed more than 100 pieces, including the baroque opera Platée, which his dancers performed in April with the New York City Opera. In his spare time, he helped Baryshnikov launch the White Oak Dance Project.

The only time he's had a workshop at his disposal for an extended period was during his turbulent stint in Brussels, from 1988 to 1991. With his troupe in residence at Belgium's national opera house, he weathered intense political and aesthetic opposition by holing up in his well-appointed studios. Barry Alterman and Nancy Umanoff, who've managed the company for about 15 years, say it's no coincidence that Morris made some of his best work—from the lyrical L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato to the cheeky Hard Nut—during that "unifying period."

The design of the troupe's new home seeks to rekindle that sense of solidarity, most evocatively through a unisex dressing room with gang showers. To reach the dressing room, dancers will have to pass through the administrative offices, allowing for closer interaction with the staff. Instead of narrow lockers, each dancer will have a four-foot-wide carrel comparable to those in the Yankees' clubhouse. (Visitors will use conventional men's and women's locker rooms.)

Fred Bland, who designed the 35,500-square-foot building, says one of the biggest challenges was getting the troupe to shed its "make do" mantra. "I wanted them to imagine an ideal world," says Bland (a partner at Beyer Blinder Belle, which oversaw the renovation of Grand Central Terminal). "Not just when was it okay, or what was the best so far, but can you envision the perfect thing?"

After watching Morris rehearse in a windowless studio at City Center, Bland provided for a pair of terraces where the choreographer can light up during rehearsal breaks or host receptions for patrons. And when Morris remarked that his best ideas have come while he was soaking in the bathtub, Bland placed one in the choreographer's private bathroom, which serves as an extension of his office. By sliding open a screen that divides the two rooms, Morris says, "I can be in the tub and have meetings, listen to music, or just break down completely."

Still, there are some problems that architecture and design can't solve. "The building's going to be fabulous," Morris says. "But unfortunately it won't make making up dances any easier. That's always going to be a trauma."

 
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