Class is in session. The teacher? Mark Morris.

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Class is in session. The teacher? Mark Morris.
Dancers attend a morning class taught by Mark Morris at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, July 19, 2023. Morris teaches a ballet class with a live pianist twice a week. (Justin Kaneps/The New York Times)

by Alastair Macaulay

NEW YORK, NY.- New York City has often been called the world’s dance capital. One good reason is that a number of the world’s foremost choreographers not only lived and worked in New York, but also taught class here. Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and many others helped to lure dancers to the city.

Fewer and fewer of today’s top dance-makers carry on that tradition. The foremost exception is Mark Morris, whose company will present a two-week season, beginning Tuesday, at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. His teaching is the least-known aspect of his work — yet it may be the most important. Although there have been seasons when his choreographic inspiration has dipped, his performers have almost invariably looked wonderful. This is a tribute to how he and his teaching colleagues prepare them each day.

The dancers don’t present themselves as virtuosos. And they’re all such distinct individuals — each exuding what seems natural — that it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking they don’t share training. But it’s precisely their schooling with Morris, whose company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, was established in 1980, that makes them look so natural.

“I first taught when I was 13 — Spanish sevillanas — and first taught ballet in my later teens,” Morris, 66, said in an interview at the Union Square Cafe. “As an adult, I used to teach modern or jazz or ballet. I would take class all over the city, which is how I met so many fabulous people: We were all dancing together. And when I gave workshops, I’d ask the most talented people to come back and be in my next piece.”

Morris, who used to teach his company class five times a week, now teaches twice a week. “It’s just the last year or two I’ve cut back,” he said.

He now shares teaching assignments with company alumni. Surprisingly, for a master of modern dance, he teaches a ballet class, with a live pianist. The dancers start by standing at the barre, bringing more and more parts of the body into play with each exercise. Then, after about 40 minutes, they work without support in the center of the room. Finally, they move expansively across the room, in phrases involving turns and jumps.

It’s ballet — though with a difference or two. Like other modern-dance choreographers (he particularly credits Hannah Kahn), Morris will sometimes ask his dancers to articulate and bend the spine in ways largely foreign to ballet — they alternate convex and concave shapes of the spine at the barre — and to phrase in irregular counts. And there’s no work on point: The dancers are barefoot or in socks or soft shoes.

But Morris knows his French ballet vocabulary and delivers it in an impressively theatrical French accent (though gleefully mispronouncing such terms as “pas de boo-ray”). Brises, fouette turns for women, ronds de jambe (a terre and en l’air), developpes ronds de jambe: He asks for these — and gets them.

Why ballet for these modern dancers? For purity and for physical efficiency, but not for bravura or athleticism or mannerism. The Morris class is “a very pure form of ballet that strives to be stripped of its affectations,” Billy Smith, a dancer who joined the company in 2010, wrote in an email. “We do use our torsos in a more ‘modern’ way than maybe a ballet company would in class. But at the core our classes are very much oriented toward the purity of ballet technique.”

Asked whether the version of ballet that he and his alumni teach could be called “Morris technique” in the way people speak of Cecchetti, Vaganova and Balanchine techniques, Morris said, “Yes, though I learned lots from certain other ballet teachers. I teach, above all, to prevent injury and to help everyone work with music.”

And is there a Morris style, as there are Graham and Cunningham and Taylor styles? Yes, Morris said: “Everything in my work derives from music. I don’t want 180-degree turnout, which, even if it were possible, just leads to injury. But I do want intimate and constant connection to music.”

A Morris classroom also becomes — as ballet at its best has been since the Italian Renaissance — a society, in which musicality, alignment, courtesy and mutual awareness are virtues. Humanity, too: Morris, an entertaining talker, speaks exuberantly to his dancers, between exercises — about what’s on television, about an unmissable Broadway show (and about the long lines for the ladies room in Broadway theaters), about New York traffic gridlock, about Olive Oyl. But this spiel isn’t just a one-way Morris event: He wants his dancers to be people with lives and interests, not just dance executants, and he enjoys their repartee.

While teaching, Morris walks around the room, giving advice and corrections. Aaron Loux, who performed with the group until last year, said in a video interview from Seattle. “I felt that for each dancer he would have a different set of objectives he wanted them to develop.” (For Loux, the biggest challenge was his hands, he said. “Mark was pointing out a blind spot.”)

Sam Black, who became a full-time Morris dancer in 2005 and is now the company director sharing the teaching assignments, will give his stage farewell during the Joyce season. In an interview at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn this month, he recalled how he used to stretch his arms too straight upward in certain positions. Morris would say: “You only have three joints in your arm. You have to make a curve with only three joints. That takes imagination.”

Many dancers have remained with the company more than 10 years, their longevity in part attributable to Morris’ growing concern with anatomical efficiency. Tina Fehlandt, a founding member of the group, laughs about how things have changed. “In the 1970s, nobody spoke about placement,” she said. “Mark and I always talk about how we used to say, ‘Oh, my leg hurts,’ but now, it’s ‘Oh, my IT band is stressed!’”

She added that he was always very specific about which part of the foot weight was on. “So that you’re really feeling the energy in your heel as well,” she said. “We think of ballet as very, very lifted, but if you have energy down into your heel, you really feel the connection from your pelvis to your feet.”

For the Joyce season, Fehlandt has been helping to revive “Castor and Pollux” (1980), the first work that Morris made for his company. “Looking at the video, I don’t understand how we did it,” she said. “We would meet up in some dingy studio somewhere. He was such a phenomenal dancer, and he was so fun to take class with. Figuring out how to do ballet in a way that was expansive and creative and exciting and worked for us as modern dancers.”

It was not until 1988, when the Morris dancers moved for three years to Brussels to become the resident company at the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, that he began to teach them a daily ballet class. That was when Megan Williams, now a ballet teacher, joined. She remembers that, in class, he enjoyed giving them one exercise for footwork and one for the upper body.

“He would show us the feet pattern, and then the port de bras pattern — separately!” she said. “We had to put them together like a puzzle. It was almost impossible, like that exercise of rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. He relished us not being able to do it. Mark is just really good at that kind of math. It was as much an intellectual challenge as a physical challenge.”

Loux said: “Mark’s approach to alignment and anatomy really deviates in a lot of ways from the conventional style of how ballet is done now. It’s less about presentation toward a front or an upward front, like a ballet dancer projecting into an opera house.”

Instead, he said, “Our priority was more to do with maintaining a Leonardo da Vinci-like undisturbed length of spine, with breadth of shoulders but also breadth of the back, so that we can move in any direction.”

Williams stressed that Morris was the most specific of all teachers in fitting classroom exercises to the shape and minutiae of music. “It was really important for him to know you were dancing to what you were hearing, hearing what you were dancing to,” she said. “And we always had the benefit of live music.”

Elisa Clark, though now chiefly a dance teacher, will return to dance with the Morris Group for the first week of its Joyce season. She said: “In ballet, dancers tend to be position-based — this is correct, this is incorrect — it’s very linear. Mark introduced to me a degree of timing and musicality that I do not feel is emphasized in most people’s training. With something as simple as a degage on 1 and closing on 2, he’ll ask, ‘Did you use the full duration of the time?’”

Loux recalled what he had to learn when he joined the Morris company. “I’d always thought of myself as a musical dancer,” he said. “But the degree of musical specificity that Mark would get into within the ballet class was still wholly new to me. I would say that the way that he taught his company, was really oriented to getting you to live inside the beat, in really granular ways.”

Colin Fowler, the pianist and conductor for the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2005, accompanies most of Morris’ classes. On a video call, he noted that Morris “has a very specific mind; and it wants very specific things.” Morris, he said, “is looking for precision and variation. It’s not just walking, it’s walking a certain way. It’s not just turning, it’s turning in this particular way.”

“Purity” can be a dangerously pious word. But the purity of the Morris classroom doesn’t make the Morris dancers self-sacrificing or noble. Quite the opposite: It makes them ornery, considerate, harmonious, direct. Morris has made many dances that say “What a piece of work is man.” But that demonstration of humanity begins with his teaching. All the Morris dancers to whom I spoke agreed on one word about a prime virtue learned in class: courtesy.

As an instructor, Morris leads ballet back to many of its early principles: dance as an ordered system of etiquette and behavior, a way of showing pattern in the world. It can certainly be high-spirited and high-energy — but it also celebrates manners.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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