So You Think You Can Dance With Mark Morris?

Molly Colin on April 24, 2014
Mark Morris
Mark Morris Dance Group will perform Acis and Galatea

There's no dancer's turnout required to learn some movement phrases by choreographer Mark Morris this Saturday morning at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse. And there's no charge. The 75-minute inter-generational dance class is part of a residency this week at the university by the 18-member Mark Morris Dance Group. While pre-registration for the class is full, a limited number of spaces will be available at the door on a first come, first served basis, according to the Cal Performances website.

These dance classes, to teach choreographic phrases from different works by Morris, are a monthly tradition at the dance company's Brooklyn studio, and sometimes while on tour, explained one of its dancers, Stacy Martorana, in a telephone interview from Berkeley. This is the first time, however, during a residency at UC Berkeley that the company has offered a similar opportunity, MMDG general manager Huong Hoang said in an email.

"It's really a way just to learn his movements, "said Martorana, who will co-lead Saturday's class with fellow dancer Domingo Estrada, Jr. "People just need to show up, be ready to have some fun and to learn something new."

The one hour and 15-minute session will begin with warm-ups, including some ballet exercises, and will progress to participants learning some movement phrases from Morris' new ballet, Acis and Galatea, that the New York-based choreographer has created for his 18-member company.

Set to a Wolfang Amadeus Mozart arrangement of the 1739 George Frideric Handel opera, the new work is a collaboration with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott. Acis and Galatea will have its world premiere on Friday, April 25, at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall.

At the Saturday morning dance class for all ages, a pianist will provide musical accompaniment of the Mozart/Handel score. Martorana and Estrada will modify dance movements to accomodate the needs of different participants, she said.

Part of teaching the choreography breaks down the complexity of Morris' work. "Some people see Mark's movement onstage and think it looks so easy," said Martorana.

The goal of the event, however, isn't to challenge participants with difficult movements. "It's about the joy," said Martorana, who joined the MMDG as an apprentice dancer in 2012, and became a full company member in 2013. "I love to move. I love that feeling. I love the struggle of trying to work on something with my body until it's perfect."

While the dance company is known for its musicality, Saturday's participants will be encouraged to learn the movements to the music as best they can, said Martorana, who had her own musical challenges when she first joined the MMDG. Previously she had been working with the Merce Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group, which folded in 2011, a few years after the choreographer's death in 2009. While many of Cunningham's pieces have a musical score (he often worked with composer John Cage), his choreography is independent of the score: His dancers moved to counts. Dancing to music with the MMDG became something with which Martorana, trained in both ballet and modern dance, had to reacquaint herself.

"It's been a struggle for me to listen to the music," said Martorana. "The thing is we all struggle to work on things that don't come naturally to us."

That spirit of working on something that might not come easy is part of what the community event is about, she said. Whether a participant is an aspiring dancer, a toddler or an octogenarian, Martorana hopes everyone will take something positive away from the experience on Saturday morning. "Maybe it will inspire people to move," she said, "and they will experience the joy."

"My greatest joy is dancing with the Mark Morris Dance Group," she continued. "The people I get to work with are incredible. I love the dances he makes; they're gorgeous and thoughtful. There are times when I can't help smiling."

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