Mark Morris Says Mozart Made Him Lose His Mind

Classic Arts News   Mark Morris Says Mozart Made Him Lose His Mind
It's hard to imagine Mark Morris — talented, inventive, forthright, even a bit brash — intimidated by much of anything. It's even harder to conceive of him being uneasy with music. He cheerfully describes himself as "a music guy," and for many years now he has been praised by critics as perhaps the most musically attuned choreographer now working. And he's been brave enough to make dances to everything from a full-length Handel oratorio to Indian film songs to Monteverdi madrigals to Arnold Schoenberg (!). He has even dared to make a wicked satire out of the ballet world's most iconic work (and most reliable cash cow), The Nutcrakcer, and to create a dance out of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas with himself as both the titular queen and the evil sorceress.

But until just a couple of years ago, Mark Morris would not touch Mozart.

And when he finally did, the result was his latest big hit, Mozart Dances, premiered last year at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and at Vienna's New Crowned Hope festival.

For an interview with journalist Judith Mackrell, given last fall and published in today's Guardian in advance of the London premiere of Mozart Dances (July 4-7 at the Barbican Centre), Morris talked about why he waited until he was almost 50 to work with the composer's music.

"Until I was about 20, I didn't really like [Mozart]," he told the paper, "it all sounded the same to me." And when he got past that stage, he still didn't want to use Mozart's music in his work: "It sounded too fragile and sophisticated for dancing. Plus, I was also seeing so many smug, shitty dances that other people had made to Mozart. They were all either powdered wigs, or postmodern comments on powdered wigs."

It was only when Peter Sellars approached Morris about commissioning a new dance piece for New Crowned Hope — a one-time event curated by Sellars and mounted by the city of Vienna for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth last year — that the choreographer really studied the composer's work. And, as he told The Guardian, what he found blew him away. "Sometimes you think you're listening to a repeat, then you realize it's not even close. Maybe it's in a new key or harmonized a different way, but it's making me lose my mind — it's so deep, so varied. You think, 'Holy shit! How could this happen?'"

When the New Crowned Hope and Mostly Mozart commissions together provided enough funding to make a full-length work, Morris settled on the idea of collaborating with pianist Emanuel Ax: "I thought, 'Let's go all the way, let's have more Mozart piano music in one night than you would ever hear in a concert hall.'" The music they ultimately selected included two Piano Concertos, Nos. 11 and 27, and the Sonata in D major for two pianos, K. 448, which Ax plays with Yoko Nazaki.

Some of the ever-quotable Morris's choicest words to The Guardian were about working with Ax, who accompanied many of the studio rehearsals for Mozart Dances: "Manny is amazing. He can play the piano all day. And he looks as if he's not really doing anything at all. He plays as though he's just crumbling cheese onto a pizza. It's wild."

Mozart Dances, by the Mark Morris Dance Group, runs at the Barbican Centre in London July 4-7 and returns to the Mostly Mozart Festival at New York's Lincoln Center August 15-18.

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