He’s also a gifted raconteur, as he makes clear in a rollicking, uninhibited and refreshingly raw memoir, aptly titled “Out Loud.” Whizzing through these adventures with him feels a lot like being in the audience at one of his lively post-performance question-and-answer sessions, where Morris the everlasting bon vivant delights in holding the spotlight, typically with a wine glass in hand. If, in this book, co-author Wesley Stace had to do much crafting or smoothing out, it’s brilliantly concealed.
“Out Loud” takes us on a swift-paced ride through a fascinating life whose joys and setbacks are viewed with a sharp eye and often dry humor. Nothing is belabored. In his writing as in his dances, Morris has a light hand. But his memoir is about more than the making of a choreographer. It’s about the layering on of self-worth, and how a solid sense of who you are can equip you to survive all kinds of hell.
He describes his 1982 dance “Jr. High” as “an autobiography of queer humiliation, martyrdom and triumph.” Here’s how it came to be: “I hated gym class more than anything in the world,” Morris writes, recalling his Seattle youth, “and skipped it, with dancing as my excuse, whenever I could.” The teacher made the boys snap their jock straps to prove they were wearing them. Then he’d taunt, “Some of you could get away with a Band-Aid!”
Years later, Morris distilled this into a work starring himself in a gym uniform. He riffed on the asinine “sissy tests” kids forced on him during his teen years — challenges that were designed to expose some lack of manliness in, say, the way he looked at his fingernails (ah, the brainpower of schoolyard bullies). To re-create the unforgettable locker-room smell, he sprayed the stage with Right Guard deodorant.
“I was never ashamed of being a sissy, and I wore the bullying as a badge of honor,” he writes. “I knew what was going on and I knew who I was, so I took care of myself by being funny. Nevertheless, every solo I made up in the first part of my career was a humiliation dance in one way or another.”
A shining confidence, rooted in a big, messy, music-loving family and his own creative drive, carried Morris through the high school horrors, and later the booing theatergoers and the time a drunk Belgian dumped beer on him. Certainly, Morris’s tolerance of just about everything except affectation and bad taste is uplifting; you can’t help but marvel at his cool invincibility (or call it professionalism or grace).
It’s a treat to visit Morris’s hippie-ish 1960s childhood, where we meet his parents, two older sisters, a rowdy cast of relatives and other eccentrics. The family lived among refugees from Cambodia and Laos, where the grandmothers smoked homegrown opium in long pipes near Morris’s wallpapered home as he was busy improvising shows with neighborhood kids in the backyard.
“I was 11, and dancing was already all that mattered, at the expense of almost everything else, even my own well-being.” He’d fallen for dance thanks to Verla Flowers, a former vaudevillian his mother found in the phone book. She taught him Spanish dancing and spotted him as a prodigy.
Soon he was jetting from one country to another, pounding dance floors in Greek tavernas and Spanish flamenco clubs. In Bali, he was irresistibly swept up in “the dirtiest dance I ever saw in my life,” concerning the sex lives of mermaids.
Morris offers up an abundance of his own sexual escapades, for instance: “Sex aged 18 in the shrubbery of Volunteer Park, a few days a week, coming home high from somewhere, was thrilling and fabulous, but it was also a style,” he writes.
Artistic triumph came early: In 1980 he formed his dance group — a handful of friends, not meant to be anything so grand as a “company” — and soon earned rave reviews from the influential New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce. An outing on the PBS “Great Performances” series followed. Then, in 1987, an unthinkable prize: Belgian opera director Gerard Mortier invited Morris’s group to be Belgium’s national dance company. Mark Morris Dance Group replaced Belgian-based ballet icon Maurice Béjart and his company. Why? “It may have been that Mortier, who had good taste, had finally decided that Béjart’s work was simply crap,” Morris writes, “which it had been for many years.”
Okay! Off we go to Brussels, where the group enjoyed artistic riches no U.S.-based modern-dance company could afford, such as a live orchestra and the services of set-builders and a costume shop. But audiences booed the dancers and their director. The beer-dumping happened. Morris acknowledges “imprudent”remarks to the press. It was tough going.
Still, he made some of his best works, including “The Hard Nut” — a dysfunctional 1960s family meets “The Nutcracker” — and his peerless Handel masterpiece, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” In the finale, the women pick up the men “like babies,” protecting them maternally, as if they are “boys who’ve fallen asleep in the back of the car on the way home from the drive-in, and are being carried inside by their parents. . . . Everyone needs to feel he’s being carried inside by his parents.”
This wistfulness reflects, perhaps, the unfinished relationship Morris had with his father, who wasn’t entirely at ease with his son’s homosexuality and died unexpectedly when Morris was in high school. Despite all the pain in his life at the time — the separation from his family, homesickness, a volatile foreign press and public — “L’Allegro” stands as a monument to the purity and consolation of art. If you’ve never seen the piece (and you should), Morris’s description is the next best thing.
Moving back to New York, Morris expands his following and becomes internationally renowned; his organization buys a building in Brooklyn. Morris prospers professionally and artistically, yet personal challenges mount. He stops dancing, faces money problems, grows angry at the low status of the arts in American culture. He takes it out on his dancers.
“I can certainly be mean, and this could become abusive,” he admits.
This is one of the most surprising parts of his book, where Morris seems to spare no detail as he sifts through a habit of belittling eruptions in rehearsals.
His executive director, Nancy Umanoff, confronts him: “Mark, everyone’s scared to talk to you. You’ve got to do something.” This, followed by a dancer boycott, caused Morris to change. When he formed his group, he was more or less an equal among friends his age who shared his coarseness and yelled back if he overstepped. Some 40 years later, he’s two generations older than his dancers and wields ultimate power over them. He realized he didn’t have any excuses left. Behavior stemming, in part, from how he survived high school was indefensible for a director. The dancing life has obstacles aplenty, and his dancers will “need to be tough,” he writes, “and I will always demand perfection — but I mustn’t myself be the thing in their way.” He finally realizes “that it’s okay, even desirable, to become less personally invested, to be someone who doesn’t talk freely and openly all the time.”
Yet it’s good that he writes freely and openly. A memoir needs unguarded outbursts as well as wisdom. It’s all splendidly resolved. As Morris takes us inside his creative process and his adventures — and shows us the courage of an artist who perseveres — there’s a great deal of light in these pages.
Sarah L. Kaufman is The Washington Post’s dance critic and the author of “The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life.”
Read more by Sarah L. Kaufman:
By Mark Morris and Wesley Stace
Penguin Press. 365 pp. $30