Dancing to the Music of Time

Out Loud BY Mark Morris, Wesley Stace. New York: Penguin Press. 384 pages. $30.

The cover of Out Loud

Foolproof rules for journalists who cover the arts are elusive, but a few third rails do stand out. For instance, you don’t wonder “But what was he driving at?” about Picasso’s Guernica. You don’t complain about the auditorium’s poor acoustics at a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. And as we learn from choreographer Mark Morris’s brash, candid, often caustic, and totally delightful memoir Out Loud, you don’t ask this country’s most vital modern-dance dynamo since Martha Graham—sorry, Twyla Tharp fans—to describe his philosophy of dance.

The last journalist reckless enough to try got a notoriously rude answer: “I make it up and you watch it. End of philosophy.” That was in 1988, and by then, Morris’s penchant for snappy answers to stupid questions would hardly have surprised any aficionado of modern dance in New York City. On his home turf, he was already a critics’ darling, and his abrasiveness had always gone hand in hand with a healthy distrust of anything resembling fatuity.

Maybe it’s too bad that he said “I make it up and you watch it. End of philosophy” in Brussels, in a setting where artistic pomposity was de rigueur. Morris was being introduced to the press as the unlikely new dance director at Belgium’s venerable Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, and his predecessor, Maurice Béjart, had had a predilection for explaining what he was up to gassily enough to make “thirty pages of program notes for every new dance” customary.

It didn’t help that Morris grimaced in horror when asked his opinion of Béjart’s gaudy, pandering choreography, since photographers inevitably caught the moment. “Of course that was the picture they used in all the newspapers,” he sighs. The Belgians decided overnight they hated him. “All of Belgium Stands Speechless Before This Disaster!” was the headline for one review of Morris’s ambitious (and now renowned) Dido and Aeneas, in which he danced the role of Dido: pretty standard gender-bending for those who knew his earlier work, but not what Brussels expected from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie.

Things never got much better in Belgium. “The pathetic frauds of Mark Morris: Enough!” was one critic’s reaction to Mythologies, derived from Roland Barthes’s essays on wrestling, stripteases, and detergents. A drunk poured beer into his lap in a restaurant after announcing “Mark Morris, you are shit.” Backstage, the company’s manager began posting the number of days left before they could all go home.

The Mark Morris Dance Group’s three-year exile in Brussels is the longest, most pivotal episode in Out Loud, and rightly so. He and his company had left New York as an acclaimed, innovative, but far from well-established or financially secure dance troupe. By the time he came back, he’d become a hero in his native land. Dance buffs who’d never seen any of his work up to then decided he must be The Guy, and they turned out to be right.

Mark Morris taking a bow at Dance Theater Workshop, New York, 1985.
Mark Morris taking a bow at Dance Theater Workshop, New York, 1985.

Despite all the brickbats, he’d taken advantage of the lavish budgetary resources newly at his disposal to create some of his most inspired large-scale dances: not only Dido and Aeneas, but L’Allegro (which even Brussels liked) and The Hard Nut, his fabulous transposition of The Nutcracker to the 1970s suburbia of his Seattle youth. He’d also doubled the MMDG’s size to accommodate those works’ expansiveness, launching its transformation from the “company of friends” who’d banded together with him in scruffier times to the rather less intimate but still lively institution it is today.

Beyond that, the press coverage of Brussels’s horror at the barbaric New World yahoo in its midst had had the unexpected fringe benefit of endearing him to his compatriots in absentia. “It was as if people loved me now not just as a choreographer but as an American,” he records with some wonder.

Yet it’s hard to imagine him hailing from anywhere else on the planet. Born in 1956, Morris had one of those You Can’t Take It with You upbringings that makes room for all sorts of unconventionality behind a securely middle-class facade. His favorite uncle was an eccentric who made elaborate amateur movies—“full-costume dramas,” we’re told, with music and special effects—starring a preteen Morris and his cousins. Uncle Jim’s wife was an English war bride who regularly dyed her poodles’ fur to match her latest hair color. His mother, Maxine, was more demure but nonetheless exposed her son to whatever came through Seattle in the way of culture, including the performance by flamenco dancer José Greco that impelled young Mark to ask for dance lessons at age nine.

Unlike most 1970s parents, Maxine Morris was also placid when her son turned out to be gay, something she’d deduced well before he bothered to tell her. (His father was apparently more oblivious.) He began having guilt-free sex with men in his early teens, although he didn’t conclude that he was “unequivocally queer” until later. In junior high and then high school, Morris’s flamboyance let him in for plenty of taunting, earning his mocking gratitude in Out Loud: “If there hadn’t been bullies, how would I have known I was a sissy? Thank you! I’d been wondering what I was going to do with my life!” Self-pity clearly holds no temptations for him. Yet he also tells us that “every solo I made up in the first part of my career was a humiliation dance in one way or another.”

He was in demand as a dancer almost as soon as he moved to New York at age nineteen, having immersed himself in all sorts of heel-and-toe subcultures—including a European jaunt and a crucial stint in the States with a Balkan folk-dance collective named Koleda, whose ethos still decisively informs Morris’s approach to this day. “Every kind of dance is a variety of ‘folk dance,’” he tells us, and perhaps his work’s most abiding constant is its quizzical interrogation of the nature of community: what its purpose is, how it mutates and adapts, who’s excluded. (Another constant is his wit; there may be no other modern-dance maven whose visual jokes and sheer effrontery are so likely to provoke delighted laughter.) Eager to create his own dances instead of serving other choreographers’ conceptions, he formed the MMDG in 1980.

He’s not notably romantic or effusive about the troupe’s tight-knit but hardscrabble early days. They were still broke and scuffling for gigs even after the New Yorker’s great dance critic Arlene Croce raved up Morris’s work enthusiastically enough to stamp him as the coming thing. Even so, longtime MMDG devotees could wish for less perfunctory portraits of, for instance, the invaluable Tina Fehlandt, whose contributions do stick in one’s mind. At least Guillermo Resto, an equally vivid presence in his work, gets more adequate treatment.

It’s not entirely appealing that Morris writes rather more chummily and lengthily about the boldface-name later collaborators he plainly (and rightly) considers his peers: Mikhail Baryshnikov, theater director Peter Sellars, composer Lou Harrison, Yo-Yo Ma. Still, nobody’s ever called him modest.

More attractively, he does provide an exhilarating horse’s-mouth view of the New York arts scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s—the city’s last hurrah, though Morris doesn’t say so, as a lodestar of artistic ferment. Naturally, he’s opinionated about both the dance world’s sanctified elders—Merce Cunningham’s work, though he later changed his mind about it, was “as pleasurable as cod-liver oil,” and Paul Taylor had a “tin ear”—and his own trendier rivals. He once walked out on Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs after bellowing “NO MORE RAPE!,” appalled at one dance’s endorsement of “the most god-awful war between the sexes.”

Then AIDS began to decimate the arts community, leaving Morris astonished at his own survival. In Brussels, he consciously chose to stage Dido and Aeneas as what he expected to be his “swan song” before succumbing to the plague. But he didn’t.

Morris may disdain the pomposity of having a “philosophy” of dance, but in some of the most stimulating passages of Out Loud, he’s happy to explain his aesthetic choices and values—which, after all, aren’t quite the same thing. He’s renowned for his desire to always “serve the music” in his dances, which made him unusual in an era when the chic move among downtown choreographers was to either treat musical accompaniment dismissively or simply do without it. “One reason I make dances is to trick people into hearing music better,” he once told Vanity Fair.

Although he’s basically uninterested in politics in the sense that most Americans understand the term—it’s almost a surprise when he confesses how bummed out he was by Trump’s election—he’s fully aware that his art has an innate political dimension. That’s not only because he’s a proudly out gay man, but also because his dislike of old-school hierarchies and insistence on social and sexual egalitarianism in dance was truly groundbreaking in that hidebound world. “I don’t feel, and have never felt, like the statue of Lenin being torn down in the square,” he writes. “I feel like the person tearing it down, even if most of my demolition work was done some time ago.”

That “some time ago” isn’t unrepresentative of the rueful tone of the final chapters of Out Loud. Now sixty-three, Morris knows he’s out of sync with the new generation, including the current crop of MMDG dancers—who love his legend but are alienated by his domineering ways. He’s out of sync with current choreographic fashions as well, ballet in particular having reverted to the sexist clichés he once did his best to contradict and expunge.

The good news is none of that deters Morris from working. Far from it, since he’s arranging to extend his legacy beyond the grave by devising dances that won’t be performed until after his death. But in the unlikely event that he ever decides to rest on his laurels, the way Quentin Tarantino keeps on threatening to do, not many American artists of our time have earned a comparable right to.

A longtime writer on politics and pop culture, Tom Carson is the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).