On Mirth, Milton, and Nostalgia: A Conversation with Mark Morris


At Work


Twenty-five years ago, Mark Morris created L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a vibrant, enthralling choreography inspired by the music of George Frederic Handel and the poems of John Milton. The New York Times hailed L’Allegro as “a glorious outpouring of dance invention and humanistic imagery,” and Joan Acocella stated that it is “widely considered one of the great dance works of the twentieth century.” Morris may indeed be the most talked-about modern dance choreographer of his generation, and he has a personality to match his renown. He didn’t so much appear for our interview as arrive, bursting into the room in red socks and his trademark scarf, thrown insouciantly over his shoulder.

A natural performer, Morris communicates with enthusiasm and urgency; his hands sliced through the air dramatically as he spoke. Our conversation was punctuated by his impish laugh and his opinions on everything from Lydia Davis, country western music, his figurine collection, and his choice of vodka. Morris is a voracious reader, and during the course of the interview in his New York apartment, he repeatedly pulled books from his shelves.

What’s the last great book you read?

You know what’s not great but fabulous is this book of love notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It’s called Baby Precious Always Shines. And I just read this Mary Renault–style gay potboiler called The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. I have to say I was so thrilled that Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize, because I was plugging her book to everyone I met. When I read her Collected Stories, I lost my mind. Those two-sentence stories really fucked me up. I think she’s a genius.

Is there any type of literature you steer clear of?

Boringness! Actually no, I have a tolerance for boringness. If it’s John Grisham I’m not going to read it. I’m not a big best-seller type, but I did read all of those terrifying, evangelical Christian books, the Left Behind series. 


Yeah, there is a famous book, called Left Behind, about the rapture. But then there are over a dozen more that get worse and worse. I read maybe ten or twelve of those books, because I was so shocked that they were the best-selling books in the country. I guess I read them to see how the other seven-eighths live. It was kind of an anthropological experiment.

The text for L’Allegro, il Penseroso is made up of poems by John Milton and the music of Handel. What initially attracted you to it, the poetry or the music?

Absolutely the music. I heard it in the eighties and immediately decided I had to do a dance to it. It’s so strange because it’s neither an opera nor an oratorio. It’s just these verses set to music, so there’s a huge amount of variety possible. To me that’s completely carte blanche. It’s completely open as to how to interpret it. And the Milton poems made Handel write such gorgeous, evocative music.

The poems are really odd, too, in the sense that they articulate the divided mind. Did something about that resonate with you?

Of course—the bipolarity of it is what made Handel set it to music. And that’s why there’s no one ever alone in the dance. Even during the big solos, there’s going to be another dancer there to interrupt you. There’s all this mirroring and doubling. All of the symmetries of the choreography, whether they’re radial, bilateral, or linear, are all related to the doubleness of the text.

Your work has inspired so much critical analysis, from writers like Joan Acocella, Wendy Lesser, and Alastair Macaulay. Do you care what people write about you?

I don’t like it when it’s bullshit. I read everything. People say they never read reviews, and those people are lying. You don’t have to like me, you don’t have to like my work, but you have to be able to say something about it. I love a vicious review, really ripping something apart, there’s nothing better than that! But it has to be done really courageously and accurately.

There’s been a great interaction between you and music over the years.

Forever! And it has always been live music whenever possible.

Were you one of those kids who begged their parents to play an obscure musical instrument?

No, I didn’t want to. I sang all the time. I still do, very loudly! When I was young my school thought that because I was smart, I should play the violin. I didn’t like it. All the bully jocks played the drums, and all the smart Japanese girls—I grew up in a big Japanese community in Seattle—played the violin. And I belonged to neither of those categories.

From the very beginning it’s always been live music. One of my oldest friends, Page Smith, played cello for dances I choreographed when I was thirteen.

What are you listening to now?

As a steady diet, I would say Bach cantatas, hula—Hawaiian music—and country western music from the thirties and forties.

I think artists should be exposed to a wide variety of things. I love dancing so much that I don’t just go to see the New York City Ballet. I go to a polka band or an Indian dance. I know a lot about country western and South Indian music because I love it. I got a lot of that through traveling because of my life as a dancer. That adds to how much I love food and cooking and literature of all kinds. To me that’s so important, as opposed to limiting the scope to allow just a dance point of view, which would be boring.

Your dance group will be performing L’Allegro at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center in November. It had its premiere in 1988 and has been performed in twenty cities worldwide. Do you get nostalgic when you see it?

No, I don’t. People who’ve seen it sometimes say they always see a certain dancer in a role, which is based on a little bit of nostalgia. But I don’t see ghosts or get caught up in memories. If I didn’t like it, I would change it. But I don’t wish it was different. That’s what I did then, at that time, to celebrate a certain thing that still needs celebrating. 

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato will be performed at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival from November 21 through 23.

J. Mae Barizo is a prize-winning poet and cultural critic. Recent work will appear in Hyperallergic, Prairie Schooner, and Boston Review.