Morris Dances

In 2000 as I was finishing my MFA in Intermedia Art I was creating dance pieces performed to recorded text. My goal was to create a reflexive process, one in which the dance and theory could play off of one another. Rather than having a dance reviewed by a critic, the choreographer could assess and critique his or her own work – display and comment on his or her process.

The video piece and text that follow were one of the most successful examples of this approach. This week I am re-recording the audio. The original text is long gone, and some of the words are garbled and lost in the recording. I listened and wrote down as much as I could understand, then revised any lines of text that are lost to history based on  my recollection of my intent and thinking at that time. Take a look and have a read. I’ll post the revised video once the audio is complete.

The script follows.

Morris Dances: A Deconstruction

This is a make-believe story: Once upon a time, before I received my BA in Dance from the University of Iowa, when Alicia Brown was chair of the dance department, I sat down with her and had a very serious conversation.

I said, “Alicia, I don’t think it would be a very good idea to bring in Mark Morris as a guest choreographer this year for Gala.”

Alecia said, “Why, do you think his sloppy technique would be a detriment to our dancers? I agree that technique that sloppy should be removed from American stages. Europe has become a postmodernist wasteland, but in America? Never!”

I replied, “It’s not the technique I’m so worried about. I just don’t want the boys in Men’s class to end up barefoot and pregnant.”

Alicia agreed, and Mark Morris never came.


This… is a true story: When Mark Morris was in Iowa City he looked at me like he wanted to pull my curly hair.


This is the truth: I’ve been working on this project for some time now. It’s an attempt to create a dance as discourse. I believe that each kind of movement, each technique, each theoretical school, even each dancer and critic enter into a dialogue about the body and culture. I enter myself into this discourse.

In 1983 Arlene Croce, the critic for the New Yorker had this to say about Mark Morris, quote, “Curly-haired, androgynously handsome young dancer-choreographers who look like Michelangelo’s David have been a feature of the dance scene for some time. Unlike the shaggy hippies whom they replaced, they can be found in ballet as well as in modern dance, in Europe as well as in New York and other American cities. They seem to have come in on the wave of ‘70s glamour – unisex, it was called then – that is now at flood tide among the young. It’s a look I can do without, and I wouldn’t be bringing it up except for the fact that Mark Morris, who closed the fall season at Dance Theater Workshop, has that look without the aureole that puts me off. Morris is a serious choreographer. He has talent, and also, along with his self-awareness, the self-possession that makes the androgynous-youth look stand for something besides dime-store narcissism. Actually, he does sometimes make it stand for that, but it’s a precisely identified attitude – one can smell the popcorn in the air.” End quote. (“Mark Morris Comes to Town” in Arlene Croce Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the New Yorker: An Arlene Croce Reader)

About myself as a dancer: I remember having a conversation with Armando Duarte during my final semester of undergraduate school in which he suggested I just get out there in the dance world and try out a lot of things, try a lot of styles of dance. He said he thought I hadn’t exactly hit my mark or become comfortable as a dancer. That statement can be applied as a metaphor for my entire life. I was not comfortable as a person.

I replied to Armando with an extended ramble about how I wanted to be a choreographer, and how I wanted to create movement vocabulary with yoga as opposed to “positions” based bodily shapes, and on and on and on…. Finally Armando stopped me and said, “Alan, don’t try to reinvent the wheel, it’s already been done.”

Looking back to dance through eyes gained from graduate school I see that this conversation with Armando as an example of my attempted application of a faith model to the body. I wanted dance to be perfect, or at least redemptive. If I wanted to put my leg somewhere in space, I just wanted it to go. I didn’t want bony structures, snapping tendons or irritated fascia to get in the way. I wanted hard work to pay off with a perfect split leap rather than to bobble the landing only to obsess over the risks of pain and injury. I think most people who dance want it to give them a sense of strength and freedom.

Lots of people want to put faith in dance. You can hear it in statements like, “If you pull up your instep actively your knees won’t hurt.”

“These exercises are the fountain of youth.”

And, “If your muscles are sore pull up and turn out more.”

The faith model can also be seen in statements such as, “If your muscles are relaxed you’ll be less likely to tear something.” This is the faith model of the ‘release technique’ school.

I think it’s easy for dancers to forget that what we are really doing is putting our bodies in the service of culture. We are performing different kinds of culture for different dances and training. No forms of training are pure, nor are they safe.

In a very real sense, by performing these different things we put faith in our capability to communicate. If we do a pirouette we have faith in the pirouette’s capability to transmit something from ourselves to our audience. We accept it as a word, as a vocabulary of dance technique, subject of discussion, object to look at, or movement to vicariously feel. Say “arabesque” and see what image you see in your mind.

The same can be said of passe, coupe, contraction, fall and recovery and so forth.

After Bill T. Jones presented in New York City his “Still Here” a work showing valiant struggle in the face of terminal illness, Arlene Croce, without seeing the performance, attacked Jones’ work as post neo Dada Victim Art.

In critiquing Croce’s attack, Marcia B. Siegel wrote the following, quote, “By 1990 the culture was going elsewhere. Ballet and Modern Dance were thoroughly shaken up by the counterculture, and hurting for leadership as a wave of premature deaths swept across the active ranks of choreographers, at the same time that a senior generation was ending. New ideas about dance and performance were seeping into the gaps. Croce lashed out at the dangers of multiculturalism and its misguided promoters at the university. In a tirade worthy of Allan Bloom, she attacked [quote] ‘the political advocacy of other than Western (or non-‘Eurocentric’) forms of dance,’[ end quote] [quote]“divisive notions of culture popular in the Universities” [end quote] (1990:84-87). Instead she offered the thematic eclecticism of then-emerging formalist choreographer Mark Morris as a model that should satisfy our cravings for the exotic without requiring us to abandon Western classical notions of dance and art” end quote. (from Virtual Criticism and the Dance of Death Marcia B. Siegel TDR (1988-) Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp. 60-70 page 64.

Joan Accocella, from her book The Choreographer: quote, “If Morris in his early years was often described as provocative – the bad boy of modern dance – one of the main reasons was his violation of common notions of masculine and feminine: to begin with, his violation of the rule that a couple must be a man and a woman. Choreographers before Morris had shown us female-female partnering – it was a staple of French nineteenth-century ballet – and also male-male partnering, which is considered far more daring. But Morris in his early dances carried this sort of thing much further, made it a sort of program. In the opening section of his 1984 My Party four couples dance side by side – one FF, one MM, one FM, one MF – and that is the message: no rules, free choice. In New Love Song Waltzes the thing that made the partner-swapping scene so surprising and funny to the audience was not just that the dancers crawled in and out of various pairs of arms but that they did so without regard to the sex of the other person. A woman disentangled herself from the embrace of a man and fell into the arms of a woman, et cetera. No problem” end quote. (from Mark Morris by Joan Accocella, 2004 Wesleyan University Press p. 90)

The second space: the undecided body.

Now, I don’t know how cool this is, because I’m playing with Morris’ work in a way that is so-called ‘deconstructed,’ but I’m going to do it anyway.

I disagree with those who take a formalist approach to Morris’ work. What I want to get across is, I see the audience and perform as somewhat a co-creator in the work. When we think like this, any modern analysis is ultimately undone.

Arlene Croce considers Morris to carry the torch of Balanchine, but the difference between the two is that Balanchine’s dances are easy to notate. There is a sense of precision in Balanchine’s work that relates to the dance notation of Joseph Von Laban and to the precision of Joseph Alber’s Color Theory or the planes and angles of Richard Diebenkorn. These formalist artists rallied to create their work as an exclusive modernism in the 1950’s.

If we compare Mark Morris’ dances to the artists inspired by modernism, it will never add up. To describe how to dance a Morris dance you could say, “ok, here you chassé sote, but don’t really extend your leg, and don’t really point your foot – just flop it out there… Well, I’ll just tell you the steps and you just do them like you’re a frumpy old queen.”

Now, I know what you’re going to say: “It’s not nice to boil someone’s life work down to a stereotype” but this may be a very important step when fighting off the formalists. Identity has been a very important aspect of both art and dance over the last twenty years, and Mark Morris’ choreography has completely incorporated the politics of the body and identity into the work itself,

But it is the undecided body he incorporates: there is either a non-commitment to gender or there is a commitment to fluid gender; there is either a non-commitment to values or there is a commitment to non-family values; there is either a non-commitment to precise line, or there is a commitment to imprecision; there is either a celebration of the body or the body is mocked. The dances, especially in his early works, move into new possibilities. Through, deciding, indecision.

My Party can stand at the center of the beginning of a debate. To call the work, to celebrate the work as part of the formal tradition is to kill it’s possibility.

Ok, so nobody bites my head off I’m going to conclude this thing to a little dance to a song by Trey Parker and Matt Stone performed by the Violent Femmes.

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