A Man for All Seasons
Choreographer Mark Morris confidently pushes the limits of modern dance, even in the face of criticism.
Mark Morris is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer. He has created work for the San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and other major troupes and his work has been performed by companies around the globe.
Born in Seattle in 1956, Morris began dancing at age 8 and had choreographed his first dances by age 14. He toured with the Royal Chamber Ballet of Madrid while still a teenager before launching the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980. He has created over 150 works for the company. He served as director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels from 1988 to 1991 and won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1991. In 1990 he cofounded White Oak Dance Project with preeminent ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Morris has also directed and choreographed opera productions for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and the Royal Opera, among others.
He published a memoir, Out Loud, in 2021.
Though those who know him well call him forthright and straight talking, Mark Morris calls himself a mean curmudgeonly perfectionist.
Mark Morris: I’m not easy to work with, I’m a little bossy.
But if Morris expects a lot from others, he demands just as much if not more from himself.
Morris: I teach class, I run rehearsals, I’m on my feet, I’m happiest doing that instead of, I mean sitting, God knows sitting, oh my God.
And as a child, Morris was kept busy. Raised in 1960s Seattle by a family of amateur musicians, filmmakers, and dancers, his parents gave him a lot of freedom, and little Mark was rarely bored.
Morris: It’s not that I was feral, it’s not that I was unmanaged or undirected by my parents, by my family. I was, but they thought broadly. And so I was allowed if I was interested to do anything that was interesting to me
Dance delighted him most. And he began taking lessons when he was nine. It turned out that he had talent, so much so that by age 13 he was teaching flamenco at his dance school. And by age 15, he had choreographed his first ballet. But his academic education wasn’t as easy. In junior high he was bullied for being effeminate, especially in gym class. Young Mark fought back with a sharp tongue and explored this period in one of his first dances, 1982’s Jr. High.
Morris: I remember some things as ammunition for future references, that sound funny, but that are really, really insulting. It’s like, I thought you forgot about that. I like that kind of surprise. That’s collecting material, that’s what I call that.
AJC: Well, that’s the artistic process.
In high school, the teasing stopped. Morris had become bold and unyielding about who he was. But almost as soon as his social life got easier, his till-then mostly stable childhood began to derail. The family home burned down in 1971 when Mark was 14; two years later his father died of a heart attack at age 59. A beloved uncle died the following year and his grandfather the year after. Morris feared that he might be next. It was then that he gave up on God.
Morris: I don’t feel particularly courageous being an atheist. It’s just, it’s mostly, you know, it’s like, well to face that there’s nothing, it’s like, one of us is gonna be very surprised, you know, that idea, which I like that. I think that’s pretty interesting. It’s like, then you’re living in order to live.
And live he did. When he was 19, he moved to New York City and found his people in dance. By the time he was 24 he had created the Mark Morris Dance Group with close friends. Word got around that Morris was giving new life to modern dance, marked by an intuitive understanding of and a keen ear for melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Morris: I work with music, I listen to it. I think it might make a good dance. I’m obsessed with it. I listen to it. I read the score, I read about it. I look stuff up, I do a lot of research and then I leave it alone.
The Mark Morris Dance company quickly became the company to see. By 1988, they were invited to be the company in residence at Belgium’s National Opera House. Morris had found success, but his outspokenness often got him into trouble. He rejected the idea that dancers should always be young and thin, reversed gender roles in his ballets, and publicly criticized Belgian society. Yet while in Brussels he also produced masterpieces that were difficult even for his critics to dislike. L’allegro in 1988, Dido and Aeneas in 1989, The Hard Nut in 1991. And all the while his star was rising back home. After receiving a MacArthur Genius Award in 1991, new opportunities arose and pressure mounted. Morris demanded excellence, and he was hard on his dancers. And while his peers could handle it, newer members of his company felt bullied. They revolted. It was a breaking point. Morris understood his dancers need to challenge what didn’t work for them, which was often his behavior.
Morris: I’ve recognized the potential problems, the message was that I was mean and insulting, that they didn’t want to hear it anymore. I know that I can be a bully but I was honestly surprised to hear how much it upset them. I finally realized that it’s okay, even desirable to become less personally invested, to be someone who doesn’t talk as freely and openly all the time.
Morris’ relationship to his company isn’t the only thing that’s changed since he started it over 40 years ago. He’s become one of the most prolific choreographers of his generation, creating nearly 150 dances since 1980 that have earned him countless plaudits from his peers, critical acclaim, and 11 honorary doctorates. In 2001, he founded the Mark Morris Center for Dance in Brooklyn, a haven for dancers of all ages and abilities. Now 65, many of Morris’ dancers are less than half his age and he’s an elder in his field. And even though he’s changing how he applies the pressure, it doesn’t mean that he would change much about the past.
Morris: I don’t have a lot of regrets. I’ve done some stupid in my time. And you know, you go on. I’m not very nostalgic but I also, I’m interested. The history of things is interesting to me. And then, and I don’t believe that it ended when I was born or will end when I die at all. I believe things change.
And Mark Morris has changed modern dance by honoring and defying it. Now he hopes that generations after him will continue to do the same. And as they do, he won’t feel like a statue being torn down. Quite the opposite. He sees himself in like-minded company with his young dancers as they too dismantle old values to make space for a more creative, inclusive future.