For Mark Morris, one of the most prolific, musical and vital choreographers of our time, a question has been looming: What will happen to his company and to his dances, an astounding 180 and counting, after he dies?
Nancy Umanoff, the executive director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, has come up with a scheme, and it’s a doozy. As part of its legacy plan, the organization has created Dances for the Future, works that Mr. Morris will choreograph now but that won’t have their premieres during his lifetime.
“It’s crazy,” Mr. Morris, 61, said last week in his office at his Brooklyn dance center, where, starting Wednesday night, his company presents a two-week season. At first, “I was horrified,” he said. “I thought, ‘Are you nuts?’”
But as the prospect sunk in, it started to veer toward the good side of crazy. “I thought what a fabulous idea,” he said. “And also the other thing is, after I’m dead what do I care?”
Ms. Umanoff said she had been inspired by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson and her Future Library, 2014-2114. Ms. Paterson’s plan is for a different writer to contribute an unpublished manuscript to the library each year. In 100 years, a forest in Norway will be cut down and used to make an anthology of the books.
Dances for the Future addresses one problem faced by companies led by a single choreographer: repertory after that choreographer is gone. With no new work being generated, companies often have no choice but to bring in other dance makers. Paul Taylor American Modern Dance has made that shift during Mr. Taylor’s lifetime. But Dances for the Future may help Mr. Morris’s company outlive his death without taking that step. At least for a few years.
“Is it a gimmick?” Ms. Umanoff said. “I don’t know. We have a living, breathing artist. This is the moment to invest in that.”
Part of a $25 million fund-raising campaign — Mark Morris: Above and Beyond — to support Mr. Morris’s work and legacy, Dances for the Future has already begun: Mr. Morris is nearly finished creating its first work, set to Scarlatti.
“There are duets, trios, quartets,” he said. “I’m going to complete it — it’ll just take a few days to really pinch it off — and then we put it away. It’s quite complicated and quite beautiful.”
The way to document the finished works hasn’t been completed yet, but each will be accompanied by extensive musical notes, Labanotation — a method for recording dances — interviews with dancers and video from multiple angles. Designs for each dance will be created, though not built. And five to seven years after a work is first choreographed it will be restaged in the studio and additional notes added.
There are other components to the legacy plan aside from posthumous dances. Along with the Mark Morris Archive, which will painstakingly preserve dances for future stagings, there is the expansion of the center itself, including the addition of three studios to the existing seven. So far, the organization has raised $16.6 million toward a $25 million goal with a deadline of 2020, which coincides with its 40th anniversary.
The plan is a proactive response to a major issue in the dance world. While Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has thrived since the death of its founder, many companies have faced traumatic challenges, like the Martha Graham organization, which fought legal battles with Graham’s heir, Ronald Protas. (The organization won.)
After the deaths of Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham — her company is still active, but his was disbanded after his death — Ms. Umanoff started to seriously consider the future of the Mark Morris organization. For her, its sustainability comes down to Mr. Morris’s dances, which keep the whole operation running.
“People always say, ‘You need an endowment,’ and I think, what am I going to do with that money after Mark is gone and can’t create new work?” she said.
Mr. Morris, who does not allow his dances to be performed by other companies — exceptions are made for colleges and for the operas and ballets he’s made outside of his group — knows that his dances will alter dramatically, as he put it, “Once I’m cold.”
What’s important to him is keeping his center going. “The building, the school,” he said, “that’s what I care about.” His dance center trains adults and children, from beginner to professional level. It’s also a rehearsal space for countless New York choreographers; and where Dance for PD, an acclaimed, now-global program offers specialized dance classes for those with Parkinson’s disease, was born.
If it’s important to Mr. Morris that his works live on, it is, he said: “For the sake of the people I work with, yes. And for the people going to the school here — the 5-year-olds.”
His blue eyes welled up. “I’m crying — it’s me, crying,” he said. “I do it a lot.”
As for a successor, Mr. Morris said he had given it some thought — but just thought. “I’m not scouting,” he said.
For now, he has a season to think about. This week and next, several of his finest dances will be on display, including the new “Little Britten” and a program devoted to the music of Lou Harrison. The engagement also includes the revival of “One Charming Night,” a 1985 duet about a vampire and a young woman; Dallas McMurray takes over the part originally danced by Mr. Morris.
“It’s very dark and upsetting,” Mr. Morris said. “Vampires come and go, and I’ve always been thrilled by that idea and, of course, the torment of eternal life. Who could bear that?”
But his dances will live on. Mr. Morris appreciates a challenge, and with Dances for the Future he has an invigorating one. “I want to make a dance that’s going to be done,” he said. “I don’t need to do études in the studio anymore. I can do that in my head on the plane. I just try not to make up the same dance twice in a row.”
And if he choreographs a piece that he wants to show now, he can and will.
“It’s not a publicity stunt,” he said. “I’m really doing it. I love making up dances and I start one if I have time, and then Nancy says, ‘Oh God, now we have to find a budget and a time to show this new dance.’ Well, that’s a nice problem to have instead of just presenting a slightly altered thing to other music and having it be a world premiere,” he said. “That’s just cynical. And it’s not very fun.”
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