"I May Sound Cunty, but I'm Doing It Fondly"

Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov at On the Boards

Brian Snyder

MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP “People resent excellence.”

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The news that Mark Morris would bring four dances, including one world premiere, to the 300-seat theater at On the Boards was big enough—Morris, who is originally from Seattle, typically brings his work to venues with thousands of seats and is an international titan who has left an indelible mark on contemporary dance. (If you ask people to close their eyes and imagine modern dance, they're probably imagining something Morris-y.)

The news that Mikhail Baryshnikov will perform in the world premiere is even bigger.

Morris (the shape-shifter and gender-bender with an extensive classical vocabulary) challenges human bodies, and his career has been a deep inquiry into what they can achieve. Baryshnikov (the fine-tuned master) has a body that has been developed to the far limits of human potential. No matter what you think of Morris—some adore him, some grumble—this will be a unique opportunity to watch living legends right in front of your nose. I had a few minutes to talk with Morris last week. The interview has been condensed.

Has the artistic relationship between New York (the center) and Seattle (the periphery) changed since you first moved away?

Hmm. I don't know how to answer that. Seattle's thing is like all middle-sized cities. The goal is to have a "world class"—that horrible term—ballet, symphony, etc. That has succeeded to a certain extent, but the gigantic amounts of tech money have made Seattle more powerful from a capitalist point of view, not necessarily culturally.

I was 19 years old when I moved to New York forever. I was quite resented by the dance community of Seattle. I don't know why. Maybe because I moved to New York and got famous and good. People resent excellence. In the small pond of Seattle, which is what it is, you at least have to check in on New York. But you don't have to go on a hajj to New York the way you used to.

Why not?

"Homogenization" is a bad way to put it, "accessibility" is another—there are more good things everywhere. Most cities have one ballet company, one orchestra, one museum, and they become the experts and go unquestioned, because it's the Seattle Art Museum. The Kent Stowell legacy at Pacific Northwest Ballet is a real trauma that the company is still trying to get over—such bad choreography. And you can quote me on that. He and Francia [Russell, the founding artistic directors] are a reason there's a company at all, so there's an enormous credit for that, but they had a tight rule over the aesthetics of the company that was bad.

It's much more fun and exciting to work with people at a very, very high level of excellence. When I work with very fine musicians, which I do a lot, it's easier to work with people who aren't worrying about how good they are—and they're probably mediocre. I'm not trashing Seattle: I grew up there, but I'm not very nostalgic.

Everyone knows that people in Seattle are very proud of Seattle—and that's not a compliment. People get so upset when they say "isn't the floating bridge beautiful?" and you say "well, no." They think you're some kind of horrible monster. In New York, people say "fuck you" when they mean "have a nice day." In Seattle, it's the opposite. It's a strange thing. As far as me defending a place that wants to claim me as their hometown boy when it suits them—I'm not going to do that.

I may sound cunty, but I'm doing it fondly.

Why come back to On the Boards now?

Oh, because I'm a sucker. My first exposure in Seattle was at On the Boards. It was a fabulous place, part of this underground railroad of smaller performance venues. We never dance in theaters that small now—it's crazy, but we wanted to do something more chamber-sized. It's a little bit of memory lane. It's going to be a fabulous show. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.


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He's spot on about Kent Stowell and Francia Russell at the ballet. They were also real jerks to their employees, at least when I worked there in the late 80s.
Posted by NotYourStrawMan on October 3, 2012 at 4:07 PM · Report this
sheiler 2
Love love love Mark Morris - he has a great relationship with Boston, another middle-sized city. You could have asked what it was like getting booed in the first (and only?) American dance troupe to have been given carte blanche fellowship for a year in Belgium. Maybe it was too mid-sized itself?
Posted by sheiler on October 3, 2012 at 4:33 PM · Report this
michael strangeways 3
Have to agree with everything he said about art,arts culture, artists and how they relate to provincial cities, Seattle specifically and "world class" anything.

And, the remarks about the banality of PNB are dead on.

How many times can you see bland, fairy tale ballet with a stage full of 6 year old bunheads and an audience full of their frustrated East side mommies?
Posted by michael strangeways on October 3, 2012 at 4:44 PM · Report this
"People resent excellence." Nawww... I think they just resent being seen as a stepping stone to greater things. Some take pride in being some small part of a great one's career, and some bristle at being seen as a stop-over.
Posted by Gomez on October 3, 2012 at 4:54 PM · Report this
Morris is an asshole who is enamored of his celebrity ability to get away with rudeness and treating people poorly. But bless his cranky little heart. He's saying things that need to be said, and that no one in Seattle has the guts to say publicly.

Stowell's choreography is a blight upon Seattle, and I consider it borderline abuse of the talented professionals at PNB to continue to make them do it. (But word on the street is that Peter Boal is contractually obligated to have a certain amount of Stowell each season. Anybody know for how long that will be in effect?)

Anyway, it will be a fabulous show this weekend! All my best to the saints at OtB who have apparently not yet strangled Mr. Diva Morris, and to the reporters who have braved his temper!
Posted by khg on October 3, 2012 at 5:58 PM · Report this
Could you point out when you edited down the article? I was looking for "proud of Seattle, which is not a compliment" paraphrase that I thought was awesomely rich. Why did you have to take that one out?
Posted by Why are there cars? on October 4, 2012 at 9:31 AM · Report this
@ 6. Somehow that got dropped along the way. Thanks for noticing—we'll get it back in there.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on October 4, 2012 at 2:18 PM · Report this
KHG. Point well taken, but I suspect a lot of Stowell choreography still in rotation has a vast amount to do with budget. Stowell choreography already belongs to PNB, other reputable work needs to be bought and paid for. Even when borrowing a minimalist production for a short time there is vast expense for a company. Multiply that by a multiple mixed rep season and the flagging economy and Seattle's propensity to build new sport stadiums and glass museums instead of investing in its existing arts programs. I'm sure you will find some of your answer. The rest may lie more or less with an idiot board of directors who purchase their place of control. Its just a guess, but story ballets sell tickets in Seattle, and unfortunately as with everything else, the dollar rules it all.
Posted by MFM on October 4, 2012 at 4:41 PM · Report this
@3 Michael, as a dad of one of your "bunheads" I probably don't have good perspective on your comment but you have to also respect the bottom line. Those kids and fairytale ballets sell tickets. Just have a look around McCaw Hall for the 'World Premiers' comming up and notice how many empty seats there are compared to Cinderella. While I enjoy (and I'm sure the dances do too) the newer ballets I will sit through the disney ones to pay for them.
Posted by Certainsteel on October 5, 2012 at 3:28 PM · Report this
@3 Michael, as a dad of one of your "bunheads" I probably don't have good perspective on your comment but you have to also respect the bottom line. Those kids and fairytale ballets sell tickets. Just have a look around McCaw Hall for the 'World Premiers' comming up and notice how many empty seats there are compared to Cinderella. While I enjoy (and I'm sure the dances do too) the newer ballets, I will gladly sit through the disney ones to pay for them.
Posted by Certainsteel on October 5, 2012 at 3:30 PM · Report this
Sorry for the duplicate post. P.S. I adore MMorris, wish I could attent the OTB show.
Posted by Certainsteel on October 5, 2012 at 3:35 PM · Report this
I used to be fat, drunk, and stupid like Mark Morris.
I gave up Bacchus and discovered a whole new world.
Maybe if he tried it, he might finally produce something worthwhile.
Posted by BMcK on October 8, 2012 at 1:13 PM · Report this
8. It's sad that PNB does not consider 'bring in a choreographer to make new work' a viable option.

But then again, I find Seattle's scratch-an-itch I'm-supposed-to-watch-this because-it-shows-I'm-cultured fondness for PNB's squalidly traditional ballet sad as well. The mere idea of sitting through any of their shows horrifies me.
Posted by Gomez on October 8, 2012 at 7:37 PM · Report this
@13 Gomez, are you as stupid as you sound?

PNB brings in outside choreographers - Alexei Ratmansky, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, Anabelle Lopez Ochoa to name just a few off the top of my head. You've obviously never gone to any of Peter Boal's "Director's Choice" or "New Works" programs, so shut the fuck up.

Yes, they haven't produced a new full-length story ballet in awhile, but as #8 MFM points out, it's most likely a matter of budget: Choreographing, designing and producing a full-length ballet from the ground up costs of shitload of money, and the last time I checked, nobody in Seattle was pooping out gold bricks.
Posted by Dingle Berries on October 9, 2012 at 5:39 PM · Report this
@13 - it's so bizarre that you wrote PNB isn't bringing in a choreographer - when PNB is debuting a new Mark Morris work in November.
Posted by JayneBirkin on October 10, 2012 at 11:21 AM · Report this
Recycled work posing as new work, guys.
Posted by Gomez on October 23, 2012 at 4:27 PM · Report this
@16 Recycled how? Care to expand? The Mark Morris piece that will debut at PNB in November is a world premiere. He's in town rehearsing it with the PNB company right now. The other three pieces in the same show are also world premieres. So is the Paul Gibson piece coming up in March, and so is the Christopher Wheeldon piece next June. Perhaps you couldn't be bothered to know that, since you're apparently horrified by the notion of actually experiencing something before you criticize it. Or maybe you're just too busy coming up with brain-dead zingers like "squalidly traditional." Seriously, what was the last ballet you saw at PNB, and what about it seemed dirty to you?

I find your scratch-an-itch I-fancy-myself-an-artist-so-I'm-entitled-to-shit-all-over-everything commentary obnoxious and, as usual, grossly under-informed.
Posted by mge on October 23, 2012 at 10:33 PM · Report this

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