Mark Morris Dance Group
Meany Hall for the Performing Arts, UW
Seattle, WA

April 23, 2022, evening
Words, Rock of Ages, Grand Duo

Dean Speer

Hi, Mark. You probably won’t remember me but in the very early ‘70s you gave me and one of my high school friends a semi-private class at the Russian Center, organized by Lydia Barrett. I recall meeting your mother, Maxine, who observed from the comfort of a couch off-stage. I also recall just how sore I was more than three days later and having to be driven to school. This degree of sore impelled me to ask myself, what is it about ballet class (I believe the class you gave us was a mix of character and ballet) that did this and to start seriously (as opposed to just for fun) taking ballet/dance classes to learn more. This discourse changed forever the trajectory of my career goals and path.

After recently reading your memoir, it seems as if I was shadowing you around (but unintentionally). I took class from Perry Brunson after you did (and yes, we were all terrified of him), I too took Spanish from Sara de Luis, and when I first went to New York to study, there you were at Marjorie Mussman’s – you having taken her advanced class, me arriving to take a lesser one. Except for the Graham studio, I seemed to run into you wherever I landed.

I loved reading about your Seattle teacher, Verla Flowers, and if you’re ever feeling nostalgic, we have her waiting area benches at our Chehalis studio, donated to us by her daughter, Wendy.

Verla Flowers’ Waiting Area Couch
Photo courtesy of Dean Speer

You first worked with the great accompanist Harriet Cavalli, as I did later – she and I sometimes touring around the NW with me giving guest classes and her providing her amazing and inspiring music and support. We became good friends and when she retired, she entrusted a chunk of her sheet music to me. (Am happy to scan and send along.) Thank you for posting on Facebook, following her passing, the short clip of her playing for your Canonic Studies. Just a taste of what she could and loved doing.

Six degrees of separation.

I’ve seen many of your dances and ballets over the years, observing and watching your choreographic and career trajectory from the comfort of my audience armchair, so-to-speak. And one time, I watched one of your dances made for the San Francisco Ballet while standing on a sloping hill and peering around and through a grove of trees and huge crowd of people at Stern Grove. That was both fun and a challenge. Many of us dance enthusiasts would get together (when we were all in SF) and argue and discuss the merits of your pieces. “Are you the next Balanchine?” “Do we look to you for choreographic greatness?” Etc.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Grand Duo”
Photo by Jim Coleman

I was in your shadow again most recently at your company’s concluding Seattle show at Meany Hall; we sat in the same row, just a couple of seats to your left. Wanted to reintroduce myself and say “hello,” but the start of the show was held up by the cell phone drama happening right in front of you (“We hold the curtain until it’s off.”) and was glad when the clueless gentleman finally realized it WAS his phone that was beeping an alarm. Whew! Then you’d, naturally, slip out at the end of each work to go backstage and then at the end to be part of the tutti company bow, so never got the chance for a word. Perhaps some day.

Which brings us to the works on the program, including one made almost 30 years ago (hard for me to believe). I felt each showed a maturity of outlook and expression. Mr. Christensen told us once that it takes good dancers to make good ballets, and you do this, not only by having a cadre of very good dancers but also by choosing great music by great composers to fit your dances to. Mendelssohn, Schubert, Lou Harrison – totally yummy.

Your dances are creative and still fresh. You too have a personal movement palette that says “Mark Morris,” kind of like how you can always tell a Balanchine ballet by its content. If I were to analyze it, trying not to pigeonhole your movement vocabulary, I’d say it’s a blend of footwork and gestures given about equal weight. That and how well and beautifully you move groups around the stage with “your” patterns and shapes that are only you. (In contrast to Martha, for example, who believed that movement came from the pelvis or Isadora Duncan who thought it came from the solar plexis.)

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Moves”
Photo by Jim Coleman

You altered this somewhat with Rock of Ages that was, for me, very deep and romantic. I loved how this dance made more use of the torso, almost Graham like. In the program’s opening piece, Mendelssohn’s music, Songs Without Words, inspired you to create a warm visual tapestry of movement. Musicians Georgy Valtchev (violin) and Colin Fowler (piano) supplied the accompaniment.

The most impressive to me was the last work, Grand Duo.  The last movement was amazing in its fast and “hard” use of the hands in what seemed like a back-and-forth quick sideways scrubbing action. It was unique to this dance and perhaps could only have come from you and your creative and facile mind.

I’m sure you noticed a few folks (from the same errant cell phone row – some people insist on being uncultured rubes) leave the show early. You’re in good company. As you undoubtedly know, Merce (Cunningham) often had this happen and even Balanchine had folks fleeing the theatre. Their loss, as each dance on the MMDG program was solid choreographically, presented some great dancing, and was entertaining for sure.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Grand Duo”
Photo by Jim Coleman

Your voice is your own, and I hope that you keep it unique and don’t “bland-out,” becoming the choreographic equivalent of a pastel-colored subdivision. (Too often companies cave to marketing and create what I call “anywheresville” programs.)

I’m glad, Mark, that you and your company had this homecoming, and it was good to see you again, albeit from near and afar.