Choreographer Mark Morris on what it means to be an artist today: “Everything is terrible right now”

“It was horrible,said Morris, 65, speaking on the phone recently. “Everyone was panicked. You’re afraid to be next to each other, and you’re afraid to talk to anybody, and as soon as you touch something, it’s disinfected, and then you go home and you take a shower right away.

A siren wails along Third Avenue outside his Manhattan apartment. “There is a constant cavalcade of ambulances,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”

A look back at the joys of creation in his workshops: “And everyone is masked”, he adds. “I hate masks.”

This is not a “everything is so precious to me right now” interview. Morris is happily outspoken, his words tumbling away at a playful pace because, as he says more than once during the call, he’s happy to talk to anyone other than the few people in his company with who he talks to every day. But Morris’ world has violently, fundamentally fractured, and he doesn’t believe it will ever be the same again. He continues to work, as he has throughout the pandemic, but you won’t hear him being extremely sentimental about it.

His business is busy, with months of bookings to come across the country. He is coming to the George Mason University Center for the Arts on February 26 for two shows. Morris will be there too, but he continues to be wary of going out and being around people – the very things that have fueled his art. He had all his shots and boosters but caught covid-19 in January which made him very cautious.

“I went to a show at Carnegie Hall, pianist Igor Levit,” he says. “He created a piece by Fred Hersch, a jazz pianist that I adore. Then, a few days later, I had a rasp, which I thought was from loudly shouting “Bravo”. But it was covid.

“I was alone and terrified of my mortality,” he says, with a light touch that doesn’t quite hide the truth. ” But I’m fine. I thought I would feel somehow liberated, like I could go out a bit more. But I always look forward to going home.

His habits have changed since before time. He only visits the Mark Morris Dance Center three days a week, and he says he won’t be traveling with the company as often: “I don’t want to expose myself too much to other people, and it’s a nightmare to fly . ”

But Morris, always pragmatic, will continue to make dances. He never stopped, even when doing a dance meant squinting at the distant company members occupying the Zoom seats. He’s not one to sit back and wait for the pandemic to go away. That’s it. This is life now.

“I am a choreographer who choreographs. I don’t just revise stuff,” Morris says. “What interests me the most is inventing dances in the studio, and once they’re open, I’m less interested in them, frankly, because I’ve done it. So having the Video as the only mode of communication for me was extremely frustrating.

“I don’t like to hear my own voice on tape. I’m not this a kind of ham. (He East a little ham, but there are subtleties to the genre, of course.) “There was a certain amount of effort to keep people together. We chose to keep people working as much as possible. … It was so chaotic and confusing for everyone.

Morris is bracingly honest about how the pandemic has upended what he does. How it set back dancers in their careers and artistic growth. How he challenged his institution. Last year was his company’s 40th anniversary season, and it had to be all digital. There were online screenings of works from the repertoire, short video dances created by Morris, Zoom Q&A sessions with Morris and other artists, and music listening parties. Many of these, along with other digital content, including on-demand dance lessons and additional training videos, can be viewed on the MMDG website. The group also has a vast Youtube channel.

Video dances are great fun. The open and dynamic style of Morris’ stage choreography shines through with dazzling clarity in these brief moments: the fully stretched bodies, the smooth, organic forms, the serenity and playfulness. “Sunshine,” 2 and a half minutes is pure pleasure, accompanied by Gene Autry’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine”. Morris gave his dancers a mission: to film themselves indoors and outdoors, in three modes: walking, trotting and running. Aided by music director Colin Fowler and company manager Sam Black, Morris arranged the clips into a bouncy, witty mosaic of color and visual interest.

For the fascinating three minutes “Fandango” with the luxurious and light piano composition of the same name by Germaine Tailleferre, two groups of dancers twirled and jumped in the studio, while Morris watched and directed Zoom from his home, telling them: “Go over there and raise that leg” , or , “No, the other way!”

But as entertaining as they were, Morris wasn’t crazy about making them. There were so many frustrations – the weather, the frequent lack of space and soft flooring for the dancers’ bodies. “I’m against hurting people,” he says.

He learned he could only work with a few people at a time on Zoom: “The sound delay, the anonymity of masked people – it didn’t work for me.”

Not to mention pet fur etc.

“Dancing in your apartment with cat hair — everyone had cat hair,” Morris says. “But also your companion is in the next room and your baby is crying. So to invent a complete dance was impossible. That’s why you get these video dances. They’re short, because I don’t want to stare at a screen all day. »

Now that the band has returned full-time to their headquarters, is Morris ecstatic? “Periodically,” he says. “But then someone gets sick. So everything is wrong. False hope. Everything is terrible right now. It’s not great at all. It’s just a little better than before.

“It’s not like, ‘We went through this.’ I hate this namby-pambyism,” he continues. “I’m not going to say, ‘Hooray, I’m celebrating, and it’s okay.’ It is simply not true. People have lost their entire careers.

Its dancers are tested every day – the positives go home, the negatives head to the studio to dance, fully masked. It broke the rehearsal process.

“I never had a rehearsal with everyone there,” says the choreographer. “There are people going out every day because they test positive, or someone they live with tests positive, or they’re stuck in an airport and can’t get here. Or their child can’t go to school. So we are still struggling. And everyone is one phone call away from calling it all off.

The pandemic, he fears, will continue to disrupt his touring schedule. In December, the company flew to Berkeley, California for three performances. After opening night, two members tested positive for covid. Limit switch.

Travel across the country for a single show.

Morris is therefore prepared for the worst, although people are buying tickets again, and MMDG is blessed with engagements, most with live music performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble.

On the program at George Mason: the dashing and enigmatic “Words”, brought to “Songs Without Words” by Felix Mendelssohn; Jenn and Spencer”; “No Fish”; and the mysterious and uplifting “Grand Duo,” accompanied by a rousing folk dance score by Lou Harrison.

“We are ready for everything to be called off,” says Morris. “I hate that we are, but we have to be.”

Nancy Umanoff, longtime executive director of MMDG, says things look more uncertain now than a year ago when everything was called off.

“It looks more uncertain because we have more risk,” Umanoff says. “We’re re-staffing to do what we’re doing, but the revenue isn’t coming back as quickly. It’s frightening. Now if you’ve hired everyone and you’re getting there and the shows are cancelled, you take a huge financial hit.

the Mark Morris Dance Center houses a dance school in addition to the company’s headquarters, and this important source of funding has collapsed. The school’s revenue has dropped by nearly a million dollars, Umanoff says, despite classes being full and there being waiting lists. But distancing requirements mean fewer students per class, and with the time needed to sanitize between classes, there are fewer classes per day.

Licensing Morris’ ballets is another revenue stream, but those scheduled for 2020 continue to be rescheduled.

For the first time in its history, Umanoff says, the $8 million organization is running a deficit totaling $1.7 million.

Yet there is art. Umanoff says just one performance at Berkeley last December was incredible. “We closed with ‘V’, Schumann’s quintet, and it’s so alive. Just feeling the music flow through your body – it was so invigorating and inspiring. Nothing is the same as being in that room in the dark, sharing that experience with strangers.

Morris takes a more distanced view. The idea that the arts “are somehow responsible for making people feel better, somehow healing them – oh my God,” he mutters. This notion has been largely outdated.

“‘The theater’s restorative balm,'” he says with emphatic disdain. “I hope that’s not why people go to shows and read books. I love beauty and entertainment, and I also love a joke. But wait, that’s not to solve my life. If anything, it’s to pick a scab on your life. It’s like, ‘Oh wait, there’s more out there than I thought.’ ”

“I’m especially relieved that people are working,” he continues. “But it’s not like, ‘And now we’re back to normal.’ That will never happen.

So he’s not here to save anyone’s life. But talk long enough with Morris, and his affection for the arts, writ large, resonates. “It’s a great way to live to be able to get something out of the live arts experience,” he happily admits. “And I like three dimensions. I’m old fashioned. I am pre-device. The answer to what I do is dance and music.

Another siren howls outside her window.

With his company’s touring schedule in mind, Morris’ wish for the future is simple.

“A second show,” he laughs. “That’s what I hope.”

Mark Morris Dance Group performs at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on February 26 at the Center for the Arts Concert Hall at George Mason University, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. cfa.gmu.edu/events.