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Mark Morris tells the hard truth about what it means to be an artist today: ‘Everything’s terrible right now’

‘I’m not going to say, “Hooray, I’m celebrating, and everything is great." It’s just not true. People have lost their whole careers,’ says the outspoken choreographer.

Mark Morris is director of the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn. (Eva Soltes)
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Theaters are open, tickets are selling, dancers and singers and actors and musicians are back at work … the pandemic’s clampdown on the performing arts is behind us, right? Right?

Here’s what Mark Morris, distinguished director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, has to say about returning to the Brooklyn dance center that bears his name. About making art, finally, with his dancers and a pianist, everyone together in one big, beautiful rehearsal room.

“It was horrible,” says Morris, 65, speaking by phone recently. “Everyone was freaked out. You’re scared being next to each other, and you’re scared to talk to anybody, and as soon as you touch something it’s sanitized, and then you go home and take a shower right away.”

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A siren wails along Third Avenue outside his Manhattan apartment. “There’s a constant cavalcade of ambulances,” he says. “It’s a nightmare.”

Back to the joys of creation in his studios: “And everybody’s in a mask,” he adds. “I hate masks.”

This is not an “it’s all so precious to me now” kind of interview. Morris is cheerfully candid, his words tumbling out at a jaunty pace because, as he says more than once during the call, he’s delighted to be speaking to someone other than the few in his company he talks to every day. But Morris’s world has violently, fundamentally cracked, and he doesn’t believe it will ever be the same again. He continues to work, as he has throughout the pandemic, but you won’t hear him being squishily sentimental about it.

His company is busy, with months of upcoming bookings across the country. It comes to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Feb. 26 for two shows. Morris will be there, too, but he continues to be wary of going out and being with people — the very things that have fed his art. He has had all his shots and boosters but got covid-19 in January, which left him feeling extra cautious.

“I went to a show at Carnegie Hall, pianist Igor Levit,” he says. “He premiered a piece by Fred Hersch, a jazz pianist I love. Then a couple days later I had a rasp, which I thought was from loudly shouting ‘Bravo.’ But it was covid.

“I was alone and terrified for my mortality,” he says, with a light touch that doesn’t quite conceal the truth. “But I’m okay. I thought I’d feel sort of liberated, like I could go out a little bit more. But I still can’t wait to get back home.”

His habits have changed since before times. He goes to the Mark Morris Dance Center just three days a week, and he says he won’t travel as often with the company: “I don’t want to expose myself to other people that much, and it’s a nightmare to fly.”

But Morris, ever the pragmatist, will keep making dances. He never stopped, even when making a dance meant squinting at distant company members occupying Zoom squares. He’s not one to sit and wait for the pandemic to vanish. This is it. This is life now.

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“I’m a choreographer who choreographs. I don’t just revise stuff,” Morris says. “I’m most interested in making up dances in the studio, and once they open I’m less interested in them, frankly, 'cause I’ve done it. So to have video be the only mode of communication for me was extremely frustrating.

“I don’t like to hear my own voice on tape. I’m not that kind of a ham.” (He is a bit of a ham, but there are subtleties within the genre, for sure.) “There was a certain amount of trying to keep people together. We chose that we were going to keep people employed as much as we could. … It was so chaotic and confusing for everybody.”

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Morris is bracingly honest about how the pandemic has upended what he does. How it’s set dancers back in their careers and artistic growth. How it’s challenged his institution. Last year was his company’s 40th-anniversary season, and it had to be entirely digital. There were online screenings of repertory works, short video dances created by Morris, Q&A Zoom sessions with Morris and other artists, and music listening parties. Many of these, and other digital content, including on-demand dance classes and supplementary training videos, can be viewed on the MMDG website. The group also has an extensive YouTube channel.

The video dances are great fun. The open, buoyant style of Morris’s stage choreography comes through with bright clarity in these brief spots: the fully stretched bodies, the smooth, organic shapes, the serenity and playfulness. “Sunshine,” 2½ minutes long, is pure pleasure, accompanied by Gene Autry’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine.” Morris gave his dancers an assignment: to film themselves indoors and out, in three modes: walking, trotting and running. Aided by music director Colin Fowler and company director Sam Black, Morris arranged the clips into a bouncy, witty mosaic of color and visual interest.

For the mesmerizing three-minute “Fandango,” with Germaine Tailleferre’s luxurious, light piano composition of the same name, two groups of dancers whirled and leaped in the studio, while Morris watched and directed over Zoom from his home, telling them, “Go over there and stick this leg up,” or, “No, the other way!”

But entertaining as they are, Morris wasn’t crazy about doing them. There were so many frustrations — the weather, the frequent lack of space and flooring that’s kind to dancers’ bodies. “I’m against injuring people,” he says.

He learned he could work with only a couple of people on Zoom at a time: “The sound delay, the anonymity of people in masks — it didn’t work for me.”

Not to mention the pet fur, etc.

“Dancing in your apartment with cat hair — everybody had the cat hair,” Morris says. “But also your mate is in the next room, and your baby is screaming. So to make up a full dance was impossible. That’s why you get these video dances. They’re short, ‘cause I don’t want to look at a screen all day long.”

Now that the group has returned full time to its headquarters, is Morris wild with exhilaration? “Periodically,” he says. “But then someone gets sick. So it’s all false. False hope. Everything’s terrible right now. It’s not great at all. It’s just a bit better than it was.

“It’s not like, ‘We got through this.’ I hate that namby-pambyism,” he continues. “I’m not going to say, ‘Hooray, I’m celebrating, and everything is great.’ It’s just not true. People have lost their whole careers.”

His dancers are tested every day — positives go home, negatives head to the studio to dance, fully masked. This has shattered the rehearsal process.

“I’ve never had a rehearsal with everybody there,” the choreographer says. “There are people out every day because they test positive, or someone they live with tests positive, or they’re trapped in an airport and can’t get here. Or their child can’t go to school. So we’re always scrambling. And everybody is one phone call away from canceling everything.”

The pandemic, he fears, will continue to foul up his touring schedule. In December, the company flew to Berkeley, Calif., for three performances. After opening night, two members tested positive for covid. End of the run.

Cross-country travel for a single show.

So Morris is prepared for the worst, though people are buying tickets again, and MMDG is blessed with engagements, most with live music performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble.

On the program at George Mason: the frisky and enigmatic “Words,” set to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”; Jenn and Spencer”; “Pas de Poisson”; and the mysterious and exultant “Grand Duo,” accompanied by a propulsive folk-dance score by Lou Harrison.

The most ambitious event is March 24-27 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when MMDG performs Morris’s masterpiece, the joyously optimistic “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” accompanied by the Handel oratorio — a rare happening, given the production’s expansive scale that requires extra dancers and a choir.

“We’re ready for everything to be canceled,” Morris says. “I hate that we are, but we have to be.”

Nancy Umanoff, MMDG’s longtime executive director, says things seem more uncertain now than a year ago, when everything was canceled.

“It feels more uncertain because we have more at risk,” Umanoff says. “We’re ramping back up with personnel to do what we do, but the revenue isn’t coming back as quickly. It’s scary. Now, if you’ve hired all the people and you get there and shows get canceled, you take a huge financial hit.”

The Mark Morris Dance Center houses a dance school in addition to the company headquarters, and that major source of funding has plummeted. School revenue is down by nearly a million dollars, Umanoff says, though the classes are full, and there are wait lists. But distancing requirements mean fewer students per class, and with time needed to disinfect between classes, there are fewer classes per day.

Licensing of Morris’s ballets is another revenue stream, but those scheduled in 2020 keep getting rescheduled.

For the first time in its history, Umanoff says, the $8 million organization is running a deficit, totaling $1.7 million.

Still, there’s the art. Umanoff says that one, single performance in Berkeley this past December was incredible. “We closed with ‘V,’ the Schumann quintet, and it’s so life-affirming. Just feeling the music going through your body — it was so reinvigorating and inspiring. Nothing is the same as being in that room in the dark, sharing this experience with strangers.”

Morris takes a more distanced view. The idea that the arts “are somehow responsible for making people feel better, for healing them in some way — oh, God,” he mutters. This notion has been much overstretched.

“ ‘The healing balm of the theater,’ ” he says, with emphatic disdain. “I hope that’s not why people are going to shows and reading books. I love beauty and entertainment, and I also love a joke. But hold on, this isn’t to solve my life. If anything, it’s to pick a scab on your life. It’s like, ‘Oh wait, there’s more there than I thought.’ ”

“I’m relieved mostly that people are working,” he continues. “But it’s not like, ‘And now we’re back to normal.’ That’s never going to happen.”

So he’s not out to save anybody’s life. But talk with Morris long enough, and his affection for the arts, broadly considered, rings through. “It’s a nice way to live to be able to gain something from live experience of the arts,” he acknowledges happily. “And I do like three dimensions. I’m old-fashioned. I’m pre-device. The answer to what I do is dancing and music.”

Another siren screams by outside his window.

With his company’s touring schedule in mind, Morris’s wish for the future is simple.

“A second show,” he says, chuckling. “That’s what I hope for.”

Mark Morris Dance Group performs at 2 and 8 p.m. on Feb. 26 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts Concert Hall, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax.

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