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Mark Morris Mark Morris. Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

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Shooting the Breeze with Mark Morris
The American dance icon, Mark Morris, spoke to us about the London return of Layla and Majnun, his middle eastern dance spectacular and collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad Ensemble.
Published on November 6, 2018
November 13 to 17 - Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R
Buy Tickets

Thank you so much for talking to us Mark. Where in the States are you from?

Seattle, WA

We're talking to you ahead of your collaboration with the Silkroad Ensemble, Layla and Majnun, which is on stage at Sadler's Wells this November, but I wanted to start by asking about how you first became involved in dance? Were your family particularly artistic?

My mother took me to see the great Spanish dancer Jose Greco, when I was young. I asked for lessons, we found a teacher, Verla Flowers, and I began studying in earnest at the age of 9. Then I studied ballet, folk and dance of many kinds. My family sang together, listened to music. My father also taught me to read music as a child.

I've also read that you spent some time in Spain whilst growing up - did the culture of Spain influence your approach to dance?

I spent 6 months in Madrid as a serious student of Flamenco and Jota Aragonesa. I chose to return to the US, as [Francisco] Franco was very bad for the arts and for queers. I adore and revere Spanish culture. It was just not the right time.

You've worked as both a dancer and as a choreographer - do you enjoy one role more than the other, or is one more challenging than the other?

I enjoy everything I do – except endless airplane travel. I was a wonderful dancer for other companies for a number of years. Then, I was a performer and choreographer for about 20 years with the Mark Morris Dance Group. I’m still a guest artist. I don’t resent not performing as a dancer. And I love not having to warm up constantly. My dancers and musicians are really great. I’m content.

You've also taken on the role of a conductor - how has that compared with the other roles you've taken on?

Conducting is a very different position to hold in a performance. It is scary and thrilling and requires an extreme alertness and calm. You also face the opposite direction from all the other artists!

One of the quotes that really stands out about your career is from the New York Times, describing you as "the most successful and influential choreographer alive". How does it feel to have such an important place in American and world dance?

I am very grateful for my success. I am a very good artist. I am proud of my company, my consistency, my school and my repertoire. There are very few full-time, excellent, single-choreographer dance companies left in the world. In short: It feels great!

Mark Morris Dance Group / Silkroad Ensemble Mark Morris Dance Group / Silkroad Ensemble
Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

In terms of Layla and Majnun, this is a collaboration with the Silkroad Ensemble, the group founded by the great Yo-Yo Ma. How did you become involved?

A dozen years ago, Mr. Ma (whom I've known and worked with for decades) invited me to a workshop of "Layla and Majnun" with the hope that I would take on the project as a stage production. I loved the material immediately, but it was about 10 years before I was satisfied and confident enough to make it into the danced opera that it is today. It's all about the music, particularly the Azerbaijani singers and instrumentalists.

Can you tell us a little about the opera itself, and the story behind it?

Layla and Majnun, in many iterations and media has been a fundamental aspect of Muslim and Sufi cultural history. It is understandably, but erroneously, compared to Romeo and Juliet. It has a complicated and layered history all over the Middle East, Indonesia, the Gulf States, Central Asia, the entire Islamic diaspora. You should Google it, or refer to my excellent website: mmdg.org

What can visitors to the show expect, and what do you hope they take away from the viewing experience?

They can expect an exquisite evening of music and dance and visual art. Passionate, romantic, dramatic, not too long, something you've never heard or seen before. I hope they are stimulated and intrigued and moved and ecstatic. But, of course, I can't force anyone to feel any particular way. It is an entertainment and a gift.

Do you get to visit the UK and London often? If so, what things do you like to do and what places do you like to visit?

I love the UK and am there principally for work. I love London, where I have a few very dear friends. Jeremy King's restaurants are magic and reliable. And I enjoy them. I go to museums, I walk around the city and see shows. I also adore Edinburgh. I love the fantastic food in the incredible "Chinatowns" of every city of size. I like rain.

Finally, what's the best about being Mark Morris?

There’s just the one!

Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silkroad Enemble present Layla and Majnun at Sadler's Wells in London from November 13 to November 17. Tickets can be bought from the Sadler's Wells website, just go to www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2018/layla-and-majnun/

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