The dancers are wrapping themselves in long white sarongs, pulled up between their legs and knotted at the waist; there are 16 of them, two new, the rest veterans; one blond woman is standing on her hands with her feet in the air, her body muscular and tanned, her legs quivering slightly as she connects, foot to wall, a tenuous bridge. Mark Morris is not wearing a sarong at first; he’s wearing a wife-beater undershirt, a pair of droopy shorts, athletic socks; his wild tangle of graying brown hair tugged back in a braid, which he loosens and shakes out and then twines and knots, making the bun fast by jamming in a chopstick. Then he shimmies out of his baggy shorts; underneath is a pair of Jockeys; he ties his own sarong around his trunk and says, “Oh, it’s like a hospital gown. It should be open at the back.”
Question one is always “What were you trying to say?” And I think to myself, “It was all up there.” What can I add? What I’m trying to say is in the dance. That’s why it’s not an opera or a novel or a haiku.
“Uh,” Morris is saying, from a corner of the practice studio, “I want a cigarette.”He also wants a Coke, not Diet, and in a can. “You don’t need to know why,” he explains to an associate. “I had a beverage before and it didn’t work out,” he says and belches.
The rehearsal is taking place on the fifth floor at City Center, Studio 5, where it is very bright under a series of dome-shaped lamps, and very hot in the late afternoon of a sweltering not-quite-summer day, the air very still. “That glow on our faces isn’t a tan,” says one of the dancers, “it’s kind of a sick flush.”
The company is here to run through Morris’s celebrated and brilliant and intermission-less 50-minute dance, Dido and Aeneas–not seen in New York for nearly a decade–in preparation for this week’s scant four-day run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Performed to the sung music of Henry Purcell, Dido is, in dance form, the tale of the Queen of Carthage and Aeneas the Trojan Prince and a mad sorceress who thwarts their love. Both the sorceress and Dido are played by Morris himself.
What was different making this particular dance was that I made it with corps and soloists and principals and did the background first. Then I filled in a foreground, using the layers to accent certain words and musical points. There are very few gestures that only happen once. It’s such a brilliant piece of music, such genius music, completely fresh although it was written in 1689.
The dancers are on the floor, Morris facing them on a bench and singing, in a hearty baritone, Purcell’s music, as the company works through a choreographic passage whose varied sources of inspiration explain a great deal about Morris’s high reputation: the deep gestural movements of South Asian dance, hand gestures liberally adapted from American Sign Language, hieratic postures reminiscent of Egyptian temple figures or else voguing, a yogic mudra that might easily be made up–all utilized in ways that the Financial Times once described as “combining butchness and delicacy, attack and flow, in characterizations both vividly depicted and yet objectively delivered.”
I’ve always listened to music, I say that in every interview I’ve ever given. I sort of have this very vast collection of records.I buy a lot. I have the complete Stravinsky, of course, the complete Shostakovich, Lou Harrison, Jan Koopman’s recordings of Bach. He’s doing the complete catalogue. We’re only in secular now, not sacred music, but my Bach is increasing. And lately I’m collecting Haydn’s operas, which you can finally get again, they were out of print for so long. And I listen to a lot of early music, which is finally recognizing expressivity and rubato and not just scholarship, and I also have a lot of oddball stuff, too. If there’s a concert on the theremin, or a lute and bagpipes with boys‘ choir, I’m there.
Some of the specific instructions that Morris makes to his dancers include “The elbow pulls in, but the right arm doesn’t cross.“And “It’s too tight like that, put air in it.” And “Leave your elbow in the center of the circle and go around it.” And “June and Kraig, you are doing the same thing, so you should watch each other, it saves time for me.” And “Nobody’s body’s attached at the waist enough, you start out loose like that and it turns into this little, like, thalidomide thing.”
A lot of times people say to me, “Oh, you must have so much fun making dances.” And I’m like, excuse me, it’s work, it’s a show. You’re sitting in the dark and we’re putting on a performance. This early music expert said to me once, after he’d seen a piece using Baroque music, “You know, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there are parts of that dance where the gestures are uncannily close to authentic.” He was so proud of himself for noticing. And I was like, “No duh.” Did you think that when I made the piece I didn’t bother to learn about the period, the settings, the literature, the music? I mean, I do my homework. This is my job.
Tapping out the time with a folding fan, Morris sings as Guillermo Resto–who, although he has danced with this company for 16 years, is not the most senior dancer–does push-ups by a mirrored wall. The mass of Resto’s upper torso suggests great authority; the thickening of his waist (he is a 44) suggests sensual appetites; his extravagant dreadlocks suggest a kind of crown for the Trojan Aeneas, whom he portrays.
When we couldn’t get a film made of Dido in this country, we did it in Canada. And it was a scandal because it shows two men having sex. It never occurred to me that it would be offensive–two men are having sex–because in the dance I’m playing a woman. It’s not drag as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a man playing a female role, but people were horrified when Guillermo lies on top of me, which really surprised me at first. Then afterward I thought to myself, “Well, what did you think?”
As the rest of the company cross and recross the rehearsal space–bodies below the waist grounded, torsos inclined sideways, arms akimbo–Resto switches to sit-ups and Morris again taps out the time, this time with a foot on the floor.
“Stop, stop!” Morris suddenly says to the dancers. “Lighter! I don’t want it to get tighter and smaller. I want it to get freer and opener. People downstage are overtaking people upstage and that can’t happen. Where were we? Which line? ‘Banish sorrow’? Then that’s what I want to see. Let’s do ‘Banish sorrow’ right from the top.”
“Can we try that last part again?” inquires the dancer Kraig Patterson.
“You can do it as much as you want,” Morris replies, “as long as it gets better.”