By Carrie Stern
This year marks Mark Morris Dance Group’s 31st year. It also marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Mark Morris Dance Center (MMDC) in Fort Greene. The center is a bridge between an internationally famous company and the Brooklyn neighborhood that houses it.
In the 10 years since the center was built, change in the neighborhood has been remarkable. Young working adults, pushed out of neighborhoods to the west, have brought in cafés, restaurants, grocery and clothing stores, and even a bookstore. It is a transformation only dreamed of when Harvey Lichtenstein, then-executive director of BAM, founded the BAM Local Development Corporation and urged the executive director of Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), Nancy Umanoff, to look at buildings nearby.
This week Umanoff sat down with me for an extended interview about the center and her years with the company. Mark Morris, who is preparing to premiere a new work at BAM this coming weekend, took time to respond to my questions via email.
Nancy Umanoff on the Mark Morris Dance Center
Born in Canarsie, Nancy Umanoff has spent 26 years with the Mark Morris Dance Group, first as managing director, now as executive director. She has overseen the company’s growth from a small, itinerant group — a group of friends performing together for a loyal community around them — to an institution anchored firmly in its Fort Greene neighborhood and the dance community. Umanoff cannot imagine doing anything else.
After graduating with a master’s degree in performing arts administration, Umanoff worked for Pentacle, a small artist management company. She liked the variety of managing a mix of nine clients, of writing their grants and overseeing their finances. Morris was client number eight. They hit it off. In 1984 she went to see Morris perform in Prospect Park and later that year at BAM. Then she started bringing friends. “I’m not a preacher but I was smitten. It was the music.
Pieces I thought I knew well, it was like hearing them for the first time. Pieces I didn’t like, the dancers helped me hear in new ways.”
Pentacle was a good fit for Umanoff, so, in 1986 when Morris said, “come work with me,” she wanted to know what she’d be doing.
“Whatever you want,” he told her.
“You need fundraising,” Umanoff replied. “How much can you pay me?”
“You do the books,” Morris told her. “Figure it out.”
It was an offer she couldn’t refuse, and it has been an ever-changing job since then. Like a marriage, the partnership began with youthful adventures. Those adventures have taken the two across the world and back to New York, to the heights of the art world and to an international reputation. Umanoff says she could happily work with Morris every day of her life.
Choreographers need space to create. One of the biggest strains on any choreographer is the cost and constant arranging and tracking of space rental. Inevitably, particularly in the early phases of creating, just as a choreographer has found a creative groove — just as he or she discovers an elusive movement or just as the dancers have begun to gel— someone knocks on the studio window or another group of dancers enters to beginning warm-up around the edges of the space, and progress stops.
In Belgium, at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels Morris had a dance home from 1988 to 1991, complete with studios, costume and other equipment storage, everything money could buy to make a dance company comfortable. This stability, the ability to work as long as he was inspired, proved key to Morris’s proficiency.
But back in New York City, the company was again homeless. The complexity of arranging rehearsal space was such that they hired a person just to handle it. And Umanoff began to search for a NYC home. After several false starts in Manhattan, Harvey Lichtenstein, an early supporter of Morris and the mastermind behind BAM’s growth, asked Umanoff and Morris to consider Brooklyn. Bruce Ratner, then on the BAM board, agreed to provide a member of his staff as real estate tour guide. Umanoff visited every vacant, boarded-up building in the area.
The site of the center, diagonally across the street from BAM, was formerly a bank, then a garage, and finally a mental health facility owned by the state. When Umanoff came across it, it had been empty for 10 years. With support from the city and other public and private funding, the Mark Morris Dance Center was born. Originally the ground floor was intended as retail space, and the center was to occupy only the top three floors of the building. Instead, the center has expanded into all five floors, including a large studio and performance space, four other studios, a new Wellness Center, offices, storage, a costume shop and a café.
I asked Umanoff about the center’s relationship with its Fort Greene community and the wider community of dancers. She explained that, as much as possible, the MMDC tries to respond to requests and expressed needs from their community of parents, artists and local institutions.
“Moving into Brooklyn, into Fort Greene, we didn’t want to feel like outsiders,” says Umanoff. “We wanted to be part of the community, to feel connected to this place. We made a huge investment in the building, in placing the company and starting a school here. When we first moved into the building we hosted a luncheon.”
The Marriott donated space for the lunch, and Umanoff and staff invited every Brooklyn arts organization they could find. They asked the assembly what the cultural community in Brooklyn needed. They shared the building plans, and the fact that the company was on the road 26 weeks a year.
“What we learned,” Umanoff told me, “is that the cultural community needed affordable rehearsal space. Eight to 10 dollars an hour was the figure arrived at, though recently we had to raise the rates to between 10 and 15, depending on [which space is] rented.”
Rehearsal rates are subsidized through a variety of sources, primarily the New York State Council on the Arts, soon to be augmented by funds from the Mellon foundation. In 2009 the company received the largest-ever single grant from the foundation to a dance company. A large proportion of the funding is designated for strengthening the company’s educational and outreach products. The center has a commitment to rent 6,000 hours of space a year to 300-plus dance companies and solo artists. The center does not present other artists; however, the 140-seat studio/theater is available as a rental for artists who want to produce themselves.
Recently, the MMDC added a Wellness Center, which includes both Pilates equipment and therapists. Primarily intended for the company, the Wellness Center has begun developing a plan that would allow it to open its services to the community.
As a child, Morris studied in local dance schools where any child, no matter his or her talent, could dance, and where many styles of dance were offered under one roof. He wanted to recreate that environment in his own home. The MMDC is now home to over 5,000 students of all ages and abilities participating in modern dance, ballet, jazz/hip-hop dance, West African dance, tango and salsa. It’s a safe place where Morris delights in greeting young students as they share the elevator to the studios. The center’s public relations describes it as “a haven, a society of dancing, a community enterprise for people of all ages and abilities.”
Soon after the company moved into the MMDC, they began to search for ways to integrate themselves into the Fort Greene community. In conjunction with the New York City Housing Authority, they began to offer free classes taught by teaching artists of MMDG for students and seniors in Brooklyn public housing. Also, audiences are bused to MMDC for performances and classes; several hundred saw the “Hard Nut” at BAM.
The center is also an important in the growing field of movement for Parkinson’s patients. An early request from the Brooklyn Parkinson Group for a dance teacher resulted in a small monthly class of five to six pupils. Today “Dance for PD” has multiple classes at the center with 60-70 students in the program. Classes are offered at Juilliard as well. A teacher-training program has been established and there are 50 affiliated programs worldwide. The MMDG offers master classes in other cities as part of its touring outreach programs.
The “Dance, Music, and Literacy Project” is a free arts-in-the-schools program for grades one through four. Constructed to be either a single or a multi-week experience, the program is led by former company members. It features “Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” danced to music by G.F. Handel, influenced by John Milton’s poetry and drawings by William Blake. Students learn a section of Morris’s choreography, study the other artists, listen to Handel’s music and create original dances based on the material. In the process they learn something about the interaction of words, music and dance. The residency culminates at MMDC with a performance of the work, followed by a conversation with the dance group.
“Being a good neighbor is really important to us,” Umanoff says. “Watching the neighborhood grow has been remarkable.” Umanoff became a member of the one-year-old Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance. “There’s a lot of activity invested in working together and finding synergies that can help all of us work more readily and have a stronger voice.”
Dance critic Gia Kourlas quoted Morris in a 2009 Time Out New York article, saying, “Nancy is the greatest genius.”
Umanoff responds to it by saying, “You know, I’ve worked with Mark for a long time and there is a tremendous amount of trust between us. I can look at something and say, ‘this is what I think, this what Mark will think.’ Or he’ll come to me and say ‘I know you’ll hate this but…’
“There are times when I know there is something that Mark may not be fully comfortable with or want to do, but he knows that if I ask there’s a reason. He’ll say, ‘Do you need me to do this, is it good for us?’ I don’t put him in a situation he doesn’t want to be in or that doesn’t allow him to create work. We respect and trust each other. It works. Mark makes up dances and I create an environment in which he can do that. Mark doesn’t try to do my job; I don’t try to do his. I’m not sure I could work for anyone else.”
A Q&A with Mark Morris
Mark Morris, considered one of the great choreographers of the last quarter century, was born in Seattle, Wash. He studied music, as well as ballet, modern, and a variety of traditional dance forms. Morris eventually performed in the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble. After graduating early from high school he traveled first to Spain to study flamenco, then moved to a loft in Hobkoken, N.J., in 1976, where he lived with other aspiring artists. Over the next four years he performed with ballet choreographer Eliot Feld, minimalist choreographer Laura Dean, and modern choreographers Lar Lubovitch and Hannah Kahn.
The Mark Morris Dance Group was formed in 1980 when Morris gathered together a group of friends to perform his work. Subsequently, he has created more than 120 works for his company. He was the director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels from 1988-1991 and, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, founded the White Oak Dance Project in 1990.
Morris, who is known for being particularly attuned to music, has choreographed for both ballet and opera. For many years he has performed only to live music and in 1996 formed the MMDG Music Ensemble. Last July Morris conducted his “Gloria” at the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of Celebrate Brooklyn.
A man of many interests and influences, from traditional dance to film, as well as music, art, and poetry, his email responses below are unedited.
CS: Thirty years is a long time to do anything. Tell me about the highs and lows of being an internationally renowned choreographer over a long period of time?
MM: I never imagined that I would have such success. My intention was to present my dances to a curious and interested audience. It is still my interest and it carries on. Highs: gorgeous performances, thrilling destinations on tour, paying all the bills. Lows: the opposite of highs.
CS: How was it decided to build the dance center down the street from BAM? Was the location important to you?
MM: We were lucky to come across the exact property that we now inhabit. It is nice not to be in a Manhattan canyon.
CS: Do you have a sense of yourself, or the company, as being “of Brooklyn,” or is it an accident of available property? How do you see the center’s, or the company’s, relationship to the burgeoning dance world in Brooklyn?
MM: Both. I am proud of the success of our school and that the center is such an important presence in the neighborhood. Dancers and choreographers and other arts groups work in the studios all the time. It is good for everybody and is a wonderful place to work and play.
CS: Your company is known for embracing many types of bodies. Is the dance world catching up to you? How did you come to your own view of dancers’ bodies?
MM: I have always maintained that, “if you dance, you’re a dancer.” I like how the world looks with its vast variety of people. I see that as a wonderful asset. I like variety. Most people do.
CS: In a December article that included mention of your new “A Choral Fantasy,” premièring at BAM this week, Alastair Macaulay wrote, “Beethoven [is] perhaps the most dance-resistant of all the great composers.” You’ve choreographed Beethoven before. What do you like about choreographing Beethoven?
MM: Beethoven’s work is big and strange and bossy. It is also asymmetrical, surprising, violent. Perfect for dancing. For me, Arvo Part is dance-resistant, whatever that means. [Arvo Part is a living composer of Estonian classical and sacred music minimalist works, of international importance.]
CS: Erick Hawkins famously insisted on the importance of live music and wouldn’t perform without his musicians. The choice cost him. You, too, have made this commitment, and I know it can be difficult and expensive. What makes dancing to live music different?
MM: It is more expensive and complicated and makes touring more difficult. But the opposite, performing to recorded music, is dispiriting, disheartening and listless. I want everyone (dancers, musicians, audience) to be fully alive to the experience of theater. Music, like dance, is meant to be a live event.
Morris is the recipient of two New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards (1984 and 1990). He is a 1991 Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation, and winner of the Dance Magazine Award in the same year. In 1997 he was awarded the Capezio Dance Award, in 2006, Morris received the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture, in 2007 a Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Lifetime Achievement Award and, in 2010, a Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society. Morris has received 11 honorary doctorates to date. The hoods hang in a line in his office.
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs “Four Saints in Three Acts,” music by Virgil Thomson, and the world premiere of “A Choral Fantasy,” set to Beethoven’s “Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from March 1 to 3. For information visit www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=3693.