The great thing about Mark Morris is how normal he looks. This is, by now, a banality, but it remains a distinguishing feature of the man and his company. Even as a young impresario, his wild hair and body bore a shape and heft uncharacteristic of the modern dance world. For people like me who, despite being able-bodied and physiologically in tact, have never gained full control over their trunk or limbs, Mark Morris stands for the proposition that effort and passion can go a long way.
Several months ago, in a better-than-never attempt to gain confidence of movement, I enrolled in a beginning modern dance class at the studios of Mark Morris Dance Group. It was a risky move. As I explained to my classmates during the what-brought-you-here go-around, I had been unable to dance ever since it happened. Years ago, I had been an adequate social dancer, gyrating to hip-hop and flailing to techno in the upper 50 percent of the club crowd. But one day, inexplicably, self-consciousness struck; like Eve, I suddenly saw myself, unadulterated, and felt deeply ashamed.
During the six-week class, I tried to get over this, plying my uncooperative body on the fifth floor of the MMDG studios, in the hallowed room where the dance company rehearses. The class was taught by Chelsea Glassman, a 27-year-old dancer who is bubblier than average but not at all annoying. She is confident and strong in her movements, decidedly poised but neither emaciated nor stern as one imagines dancers to be. Encouragement is her M.O. “Even over a short time, people improve,” she’d tell us, “if they can just let go and allow themselves to be immersed in the movements.” A big if.
We began each class by walking, running, and touching down, frontwards, backwards, and in zigzags across the room. Mimicking Chelsea, we made X’s on our backs, curled into tendrils, and flopped our legs like drunken pendulums. We even memorized a 20-count sequence that involved contorting our torsos into expressive arcs. All of this was doable but highly uncomfortable. I was generally lukewarm in my participation, despite my best attempts to suspend disbelief. It might have been okay had we not spent time observing one another. Chelsea often divided us into two or three or four groups that performed consecutively. Just when I was feeling halfway confident, I’d be forced to watch the others and think, ‘my god, is that what I look like?’
Naysaying aside, I admit that the class was enjoyable overall. At the end of each session, for at least the time it took to walk home, I felt a bit more self-assured, a bit more excited to confront a world full of bodies—balletic pedestrians padding the sidewalk, leashed dogs lightly bounding. Next time I trip on a crack in the pavement, I will recover with newfound grace.
For this I thank MMDG, and as the holiday season nears I wait impatiently for The Hard Nut revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With commissioned set drawings and props by Charles Burns, The Hard Nut is a zany, faux-1970s take on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Last time it was performed at BAM, in 2002, Morris himself appeared to great applause as the afro’d, zoot-suited Christmas-party drunk, the only ballet role I could conceivably play.
Actually, I take that back. This is why we love watching MMDG: the dancers, who look like real people, trick us into believing that we, too, could do that. The Hard Nut opens with kids watching TV and adults making boozy fools of themselves. In Morris’s care, The Nutcracker’s saccharine “Waltz of the Flowers” becomes a celebration of the buttocks. Dance critic Joan Acocella describes the scene as follows: “seven dancers lie down on their backs with their heads to us and execute a half-somersault, so that we look directly at their back ends—seven of them, all in a row, blandly greeting the audience: an image all the more remarkable in that these people are supposed to be flowers.” Later in The Hard Nut, Morris has the dancers spraying the stage with handfuls of snow over and over again as they laboriously pirouette. Acocella says it’s like “watching ten people try to climb a flagpole simultaneously.”
I have never climbed a flagpole or executed a pirouette, but in a few weeks’ time, you will see me in the audience at BAM, getting into the Christmas spirit. My eyes will be glued to a cast of muscular men and women dressed in garish holiday clothes as they flee robotized rats, show off their butts, and fling white flakes across the stage. For 1.75 hours, I’ll laugh and celebrate the potential of my body’s misbehaving parts, embracing a world in perpetual motion. Like Chelsea says, “it’s always inspiring to see people putting themselves in an extremely vulnerable place.”