I'm delighted to be part of this interdisciplinary symposium and to conduct a conversation with the force of nature known as Mark Morris. Mark will be joining us shortly to talk for about an hour, show some video, and then take some questions from the audience. Meanwhile, as the theater man on the panel, I've been asked to talk for a few minutes -- ten minutes, to be exact -- about how Mark Morris relates to contemporary theater.
As I was preparing this talk, I found it hard to confine myself to talking just about the theater. That's probably because the best theater of our time doesn't confine itself to just theater. Theater has always been the most all-encompassing art form; as far back as the Greeks, dancing and singing were as much a part of the spectacle as dramatic scenes. But among the generation of artists at the forefront of contemporary theater there has been a special passion for making work that melts the boundaries between dance, music, video, visual art, the spoken word, martial arts, electronic technology, standup comedy, and sacred ritual. People started calling their work "operas" or "performance art" specifically to distinguish it from the small-scale realistic plays associated with Broadway, to suggest something more-than-theater. These multi-disciplinary ambitions are a crucial characteristic of postmodernism.
The term "postmodernism" has become a somewhat hollow, meaningless joke, like "Vice President Dan Quayle," but it has its uses. In art history terms, postmodernism reminds us that not so long ago the most advanced and pertinent art being made, which proudly called itself "modern art," specifically wanted to be pure and unalloyed: dance about walking, painting about paint, music about silence, and theater that stripped the form down to the barest essentials of language, as Beckett did, or the body, as Grotowski did. Its impulse was monotheistic, concentrating on respect for one tradition. The succeeding generation went in a direction that was more polytheistic, in the sense of having respect for many traditions, which to monotheists can seem outrageous or blasphemous. There are lots of reasons why the next generation after the modernists went in the exact opposite direction. But I'd like to go out on a limb and talk about the seed of postmodernism I think is most germane to a discussion of Mark Morris. I blame it on the Rolling Stones.
Almost from the beginning, the major artists of rock and roll and the generation that grew up with them acted on an impulse to be multidisciplinary, multimedia, multilingual, yes, multicultural. Pop music in the 1960s bridged many cultures -- the Beach Boys from suburban California, the Supremes from inner-city Detroit, the Beatles from working-class Liverpool. Then the Beatles went to India, Bob Dylan went to Nashville, the Supremes went to Vegas, and everybody went to Hollywood. Sure, a lot of that was jet-set fashion, but the artistic temperament of the rock and roll generation became one that was restlessly eclectic, insatiably curious, and outward-looking. Today some of the finest rock artists are mature musicians like Paul Simon, David Byrne, Sting, and Peter Gabriel whose passion for musics from Africa, South America, and the Middle East has provided an exciting education and an escape from ethnocentricity for young Anglo music-lovers.
That eclectic, rock and roll spirit is what first made me pay attention to Mark Morris. Like many people, I was bowled over by his 1984 concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here was a dance set to Vivaldi on the program with another based on Roland Barthes' essay about wrestling. Between them was a 20-minute solo to an Indian raga performed ecstatically, unforgettably by the choreographer himself wearing nothing but a dhoti. He would show up at Dance Theater Workshop with programs mixing Brahms and Beethoven with Yoko Ono, the Violent Femmes, or country music -- not just generic country music, either, but Charlie and Ira Louvin. I was really turned on by his willingness to see Roland Barthes, Vivaldi, and country music as equally valid material. It presented a picture of the world that I recognized as true.
Since I grew up in a trailer park listening to hillbilly music, I loved it that Mark Morris endorsed my taste for the Louvin Brothers. At the same time, he was giving me an education in classical music. Watching the line and circle dances in "L'Allegro," I learned to understand Handel as more than an intimidating name from the History of Music but rather as a guy who made tunes for people to dance to, like Chuck Berry or the B-52s. And if it seemed corny for the dancers in a classical piece to signal with a gesture every sighing breeze and calling nightingale, all I had to do was watch them acting out the lyrics to "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You" by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to realize why Mark Morris has his dancers do that. Because it's FUN.
This symposium is called "The Body Eclectic," and the subtitle is "Mark Morris' Dances and Art Issues of the '90s." What are the theater issues of the '90s? It seems to me that one of them, anyway, has to do with this question of "Where do we meet each other?" We're living in a world that is rife with divisions, oppositions, holy wars and murderous conflicts. The movement for self-determination among nations all over the world inevitably has a shadow side to it of drawing battle lines even sharper: between Serbs and Croatians in Eastern Europe, between Sikhs and Muslims in India, between African-Americans and Korean-Americans in Los Angeles, between men and women in our own homes. Even to talk about the interests of American business and the interests of the environment as if they were separate things puts the survival of the planet in peril. Where do we meet each other?
In this situation, artists have an open invitation to imagine a way out or at least a way deeper into the big questions, to imagine a circle large enough to include polar opposites. The performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, one of the most articulate voices of today's theater, defines the landscape of the '90s as a "border culture." He himself exemplifies this border culture. Being Mexican and American, speaking Spanish and English, being a poet and a political activist, a writer and performer, he reminds us that we all cross borders somewhere in our lives and that we feel most whole when we locate our identities at the crossroads, on the border, wherever "either/or" turns into "and." In his trilogy of solo pieces meditating on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival on these shores, he talks about how hard it is for parties in conflict to stay in the room long enough to ask the question, "Why don't we get along?" And he suggests that it's up to artist-citizens to create a space where it's safe to ask the question and not have to answer it too fast.
The question also turns up in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," which opened last year at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, was a big hit in London and Los Angeles, and has already become the major theater event of the '90s. It's an epic play that runs almost seven hours, and I'm not even going to try to summarize it here. But throughout the play are several crucial scenes between unlikely pairs of people -- a schizophrenic woman and a gay man with AIDS dementia, a Mormon lawyer and a Jewish intellectual. They talk about their differences without trying to change each other or be changed, and you realize that the conversation itself provides the connection, the healing between them. Probably the most moving scene is when Roy Cohn, who's a major character in the play, dies, and Ethel Rosenberg, who's come back to haunt the son of a bitch, sings Kaddish over his dead body.
Without dialogue, without political debate, in fact with the most beguiling playfulness, Mark Morris participates in this exploration of border culture, the dance of paradox, not only through his eclectic material but also through the way his company looks, the way he has men and women relate onstage, and his enthusiasm to celebrate, as New Yorker critic Arlene Croce put it, "the celestial virtues as well as the down-and-dirty."
"Where do we meet each other?" is essentially a spiritual inquiry. And the increasing willingness to embrace overt spirituality, both as subject matter and as a perspective from which to take in all the world, is another characteristic that links Mark Morris to contemporary theater. For instance, I'm thinking of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's The Gospel at Colonus, Peter Brook's The Mahabharata, and especially the opera and theater work of Mark Morris' sometime collaborator Peter Sellars. This spiritual inquiring doesn't take place in isolation, either. Another characteristic of contemporary theater is the conviction that the best work emerges over time from an ongoing community of artists, as we've seen in the last decade with the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, Steppenwolf Theater from Chicago, and
cross- disciplinary performance groups like Thought Music, Urban Bush Women, San Francisco's Contraband, Belgium's Needcompany, and Spain's La Fura dels Baus, to name just a few.
I could spell out these connections in detail, but my ten minutes are up, and I don't wish to postpone any longer the pleasure of welcoming our guest of honor to the stage. At this point in the afternoon I'm sure he needs no introduction: Mark Morris.
Just in case anyone doesn't know the basics: Mark Morris was born and raised in Seattle. He formed his own dance company in New York City in 1980 and has created more than 60 dances for his company as well as for the Boston Ballet, the Joffrey, American Ballet Theatre, and the Paris Opera Ballet, among others. From 1988-1991 he was director of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, where his company was in residence. He has worked extensively in opera, directing a production of The Marriage of Figaro in Brussels and creating the dances for The Death of Klinghoffer, which is currently playing at the San Francisco Opera and has three more performances scheduled between now and the end of November. Last year he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Let's give a warm welcome to Mark Morris.
Coda: here's a poem that reminds me of Mark Morris
Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here
Quick to find a joke, slow to be serious
Red shirt, perfect coordination, sly
Strong muscles with things always in his pocket:
Reed flute, ivory pick, polished and ready for his talent.
You know that one.
Have you heard stories about him?
Pharoah and the whole Egyptian world collapsed for such a Joseph.
I'd gladly spend years getting word of him
Even third or fourth-hand.