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book review

‘Out Loud’ pulls aside the curtain on the life and work of Mark Morris

No one has ever doubted that Mark Morris had a voice — not just a stunning musical and choreographic one, but also an often provocative, call-it-as-you-see-it spoken one. Now, with the publication of his memoir, aptly titled “Out Loud,” we get to hear that spoken voice in all its guises: from brilliance to laugh-out-loud wit, tenderness to outrage, introspection to cockiness, gratitude to irony to (his word) vulgarity.

Written by Morris and novelist/singer-songwriter Wesley Stace, the book takes you on a now riotous, now somber tour through Morris’s personal history and the history of his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group — interwoven, out of necessity, it seems, with the history of modern dance and an astute analysis of music through the ages. Morris has said, “I’m a musician choreographically,” and the variety of composers he has set his more than 150 dances to boggles the mind: from Bach, Handel, Purcell, and Brahms to Stravinsky, Vivaldi, and Poulen – not to mention Lou Harrison, the Louvin Brothers, Gershwin, Indian classical music, and Thai pop artists.

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It’s a monumental task, and one done with elan and candor: He’s pulling aside a curtain to let you see both the backstage to his dances and the workings of his genius mind.

Morris was born in 1956 in Seattle to an incredibly musical family. Smitten after seeing the great flamenco dancer José Greco at the Seattle Opera House, he declared to his mother, “I want to do that!” She found him lessons at a nearby school run by Verla Flowers, who taught Spanish dance, hula, tap and ballet. Morris was 9. When he was 11, Greco himself selected him to attend a two-week workshop in flamenco, ballet, and jota. He returned home exhilarated.

At age 14, with Verla’s encouragement, he began choreographing. Even then, he was a maverick. His piece “Jr. High,” set to music by Conlon Nancarrow, included “sissy tests” he’d been subjected to and “the vile smell of the locker room” – he’d doused the stage with Right Guard. Morris considered the piece a triumph. “I was never ashamed of being a sissy,” he writes, “and I wore the bullying as a badge of honor.”

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Also as a teen, he joined the Balkan folk dance troupe Koleda, a move that profoundly influences his choreography to this day. “Every dance I make has the germs of that experience, and those days were the first inklings of the life I have now,” he writes. “Singing and dancing simultaneously, holding hands or belts, communality, social fluency, sex for fun, slivovitz, cooking for a mob … pride of accomplishment, enduring friendships, and a never-ending interest in the musics, dances, languages, and cultures of the terrifying, friendly, funny incomprehensible world.”

Those early years provide much needed context, particularly the Koleda link. But it’s the chapters devoted to his dances — from the heights of the magnificent “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” (1988), set to Handel’s oratorio, to the disaster of the Broadway show “The Capeman” (1998), to music by Paul Simon — that form the soul of the book. Critics have analyzed his pieces from the outside in. Here Morris shows us them from the inside out, filtered through his daily life and the people and places that helped shape him.

For the exuberant “Gloria” (1981) to Vivaldi’s Gloria in D, Morris lays bare both his process and the structure of the piece: “‘Gloria’ was the first dance I choreographed where I divided the danced chorus strictly into soprano, alto, tenor, and bass so it matched the singing chorus exactly,” he writes. “The sopranos would be two women dancers; altos, a woman and a man; tenors, a man and a woman; and basses, two men.… I choreographed each of the four voices separately, one by one on myself, when I got back home from class in the city…. I’d later teach that part to somebody else and make up the parts around it.”

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“Deck of Cards” (1983) features Morris, clad in a coral polyester dress, dancing to “Say It’s Not You,” by George Jones. He explains: “It’s a very sad dance, barefoot, in a dress, that charts a progress of loneliness, despair, and desolation, a love hangover after a night of sex and drink.”

For “L’Allegro,” he provides background, the thinking behind the structure, and even how his own sense of equality and compassion shaped a movement in the finale of act 1: Rather than the men picking up the women (“a tired old trope—‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about that’ ”), he has “the women pick up the men, carry them around like babies—everybody chuckles—and then the men pick up the women.” The meaning? “The women are protecting the men, which is maternal, and beautiful, as if the men 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,” he writes. “Everyone needs to feel he’s being carried inside by his parents.”

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We experience that exquisite humanism as we watch his shows, and recognize that it’s presented in a classical frame — as so much of Morris’s dances are. But do we really want him to spell it out for us?

Throughout the book, Morris’s eye for the telling detail astonishes, capturing the essence of a place or a person in a heartbeat. To wit: About Verla he writes: “Her hair was done fresh once a week, and you could tell what day of the week it was by how far it had collapsed.” About his father he notes, “He wasn’t one of those dads who had his own chair.”

There are short one-sentence paragraphs at the end of some sections that connote a sense of drama that isn’t there. But that’s a minor stylistic quibble. From the early pages of “Out Loud,” at Verla Flowers Dance Arts, in Seattle, to the closing ones, with Morris touring the expansive Mark Morris Dance Center, in Brooklyn, you derive a sense of hope—for the arts, for humanity.

My own school, writes Morris, “is meant to be like Verla Flowers Dance Arts, a dancing school rather than a conservatory. We teach you to dance from the ground up.”

OUT LOUD: A MEMOIR

By Mark Morris and Wesley Stace

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Penguin Press,

384 pp. $30


Thea Singer is a Boston-based science writer and dance critic. She can be reached at thea.singer@comcast.net.