The Music Man

Classic Arts Features   The Music Man
Choreographer Mark Morris, whose Sandpaper Ballet is performed by Houston Ballet through June 5, speaks with Allen Robertson about how music informs his dance creations.

I don't care who wrote it," insists choreographer Mark Morris. "If I think it sounds fabulous, well, that's good enough for me."

Throughout his 25-year career as a dance maker Morris has reveled in both the undeniably great and the utterly unexpected. Whether he is breaking boundaries, ignoring categories, or defying expectations, no one has more fun with music. "But," he says, "you have to understand that just because I make jokes doesn't mean I'm not a serious person."

Two of his biggest ballet projects, Gong and Sandpaper Ballet, illustrate this to perfection. Neither of them tells a story, but both show us a lot about the music. Each of them does so with wit and affection. Gong, created for American Ballet Theatre in 2001, resurrected an obscure work from 1936 by a now equally obscure composer, Colin McPhee. Morris's ballet lets us hear and see that it should never have been so unfairly neglected.

"Just because all the music I use isn't on some Hall of Fame list doesn't mean it isn't worth listening to. And," Morris adds with a sly smile, "just because it isn't in your CD collection doesn't mean that it's not in mine.

"I always base my work on the music," he says. "It decides for me what is going to happen. You need to respect the music you choose. Otherwise, why bother?

"I go from the music, from what it tells me. I don't understand why people think that if you're alive and under 75 years old that you should be expected to 'update' everything, to 'comment' on everything; you know, putting quotation marks around it just so that you can call your dance 'post-modern'. So what?"

His love of music is one of the dominant themes shining through all his choreography. But it has to be stressed that Morris is in no way a musical snob. Instead, he fields music that he hopes the rest of the world will enjoy listening to as much as he does.

No single Morris work is as joyously playful as Sandpaper Ballet. The score is composed of ten works by Leroy Anderson (1908-1975), who was the John Williams of his day. Even if you've never heard of Anderson, I promise that you do know some of the tunes in Sandpaper Ballet. His "Syncopated Clock" became a popular TV theme tune, and it has been virtually impossible to get through any December during the past 50 years without hearing his "Sleigh Ride" at least once. Morris uses this as a rip-roaring overture to Sandpaper Ballet. It's so much fun that by the time the curtain goes up you're already smiling.

"They're songs without words," says Morris, "little gems; one-liners that really show off the band."

At Harvard, where Anderson was studying languages - he mastered ten of them - he also directed the University Band. In 1936 he was asked to arrange and conduct a pastiche of Harvard songs for a Boston Pops performance. Arthur Fiedler, the Pops' director, was so impressed that he asked Anderson to compose an original work. The result, "Jazz Pizzicato", is one of the pieces Morris uses in Sandpaper Ballet.

Anderson's long-term relationship with the Boston Pops, as both composer and conductor, eventually led him into the recording studio. In 1950, just as the long-playing album was coming into vogue, Anderson signed with the Decca label and produced a series of best sellers, including Blue Tango, which in 1952 reached No. 1 on the charts and went on to become the first non-vocal song to ever sell a million copies.

Morris takes great pleasure in truly celebrating all the scores that he chooses. He's done it with opera companies, with ballets, and in his work for his own contemporary company. His taste is eclectic, his knowledge encyclopedic, and his love of music impressive.

Only occasionally has Morris choreographed to a newly commissioned score. One of these rare exceptions was Nixon in China, the John Adams opera directed by Peter Sellars which was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 1987.

"Music," he says, "is the senior partner. I really do mean that. Everyone who knows me, knows about my live music obsession. It's terribly important for me, almost more important than the dancing. The orchestra has got to be good.

"That's how I decide what companies I choose to work with. First, the band has got to be fabulous, otherwise I just won't do it. Even the greatest piece of choreography can be ruined by a horrible conductor, or a bored orchestra. And as I'm so fond of saying, 'life's too short for that.' "

Sandpaper Ballet was created for San Francisco Ballet in 1999. Houston Ballet is the first company to add this ebullient treat to its repertory. Without doubt, it will prove to be as big a hit in Texas as it has been in California.

An American who has lived in London since 1984, Allen Robertson is the dance editor of Time Out London and of the quarterly Dance Now.

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