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Mark Morris in rehearsal at ENB for Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. Photograph © Asya Verzhbinsky, reproduced with her kind permission. Photo © Asya Verzhbinsky, Reproduced with permission
On a Saturday lunchtime around this time last year, I walked out of the Sadler’s Wells stage door & up Rosebery Avenue feeling like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. I’d just played my first class for Mark Morris & his company (I’d already played for Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes in 2003, but never for a class), and it was – I’m not exagerrating – a mindblowing experience.

I guess you have to understand that ballet class is something that has bugged my curiosity ever since I first walked through the doors of the RAD nearly 20 years ago. When I left there 9 months later, I tried to explain to the then director, Julia Farron, that much as I liked dance and was grateful for my job, I was frustrated because I felt that class could be so much more than it currently was, but there seemed to be no way of doing it.

I’ve been more grateful than Julia will perhaps ever know that she said “I’m probably cutting off my nose to spite my face, but you should go and join a company”. Which is what I did, and she was absolutely right. As you’ll have seen from previous entries, over the years, I’ve met fantastic people who do take class and music in dance on to another level, and that’s why I’ve stayed in it.

But that class of Mark Morris’s was on more than another level, it was from another planet, where class had had an opportunity to develop on completely different lines, in keeping with the kind of impractical blue-skies-thinking that I’d had when I first started playing for dance. I felt like I’d seen the future. It probably won’t be the future, because you’d have to be Mark Morris, have your own company, and be doing your own works to reproduce it, but it’s nice that someone’s doing it, at least.

How to explain? Well, for one thing, singing has an amazing effect on movement. Those odd occasions where dancers spontaneously sing along during an exercise are remarkable for the difference they make to the musicality, execution, atmosphere and phrasing of an exercise. John O’Brien used to use this in his classes. Christian Addams provided an atmosphere in his Central School classes where students felt comfortable doing it. But Mark Morris is the first person I know to actually tell his dancers to sing (“If you sing, you’ll get warmer quicker”), or to correct a dancer on their singing in class(“Don’t you know the words to anything?!”).

He sings himself, of course – and how! There I was, innocently playing I’m in the mood for love for a tendu exercise, when suddenly – a quarter way through the phrase, in comes this massive, booming voice, backphrasing like there’s no tomorrow to catch up with the music, a cross between Ella Fitzgerald, Pavarotti, Nina Simone and Cleo Laine. His backphrasing is – deliberately, mischievously – more wayward than Barbra Streisand’s, to put everyone else off, so that they absolutely have to know what they’re doing with their bodies, otherwise they’d fall over. It’s time for the second side, they turn around, and – guess what – this time, it’s a whistling chorus, for which I naturally tone down the accompaniment. But then, just as you’ve got comfortable, it’s time for the big band to resume with the voice. It’s mad, totally, wonderfully, musically mad.

His musical knowledge is astounding, and at the end of an exercise, he might suddenly turn on one of the dancers and say “Who wrote that?” Chances are, they’ll know. Everyone will relax if the dancer gets the right answer – but it’s not over yet – he’ll turn to the next dancer at the barre “Who wrote the lyrics!?”. My students think music is a necessary evil? Just try and get away with not being interested in it in a Mark Morris class.

When I say astounding, I mean it. I have an old Zarah Leander song in my repertoire which isn’t particularly interesting, but it has a rhythmic pattern which is ideal for a certain kind of exercise. Lost for anything better to play at one point when I played for a MM class recently, I played this, hoping he wouldn’t make fun of me for the rather banal melody. It’s one of those songs that only makes sense if you know the words. To my astonishment, he started la-la-la-ing along “Why do I know that?” he asked. “What is it?” For the life of me, I couldn’t remember. Then he suddenly said “Oh I know, it’s that German song. It goes something like “In der Nacht ist der Mensch nicht gern alleine” .

Not surprisingly, his marking is musically impeccable. He’ll think for a second, then just tell you or sing you in absolutely unmistakeable terms what he wants, rhythm, tempo, feel. Sometimes funny – “this is going to be too slow and too long” – very often detailed and erudite; when he was trying to convey the tempo of one the numbers in Drink to me only, he sang it at the tempo he wanted, then said “Like a hornpipe”. Being Mark, he meant the Purcellian kind in 3/2 which (unlike it’s more folksy counterpart in 2/4) does have a very easy-to-remember feel and tempo.

Exercises are interspersed with anecdotes, commentaries on current events or issues, questions to dancers, gossip, jokes, but all to a purpose – to keep alert, to keep a musical mind turning, to avoid passivity, complacency; to be fresh and full of adrenalin, light, motivated & full of fun. There is so much more to musicality than music; it’s a state of mind, and a willingness to be convivial and honest, and this is what Mark Morris cultivates in his classes. I love his musicality, but I adore his honesty, lack of pretension and outspokenness. If ever there was a person I wanted to work with before I died it was him, and I’ll be eternally grateful to Matz Skoog & ENB for giving me that opportunity.

Mark Morris blogs for a week

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist