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4 April 2010

What Mark Morris thinks about butts

Of late I have been endeavoring to understand dance. A review of Mark Morris‘s “Socrates” at BAM helped me some with its inclusion of a quote about…butts.

This led me to the quote’s original appearance, a passage from The New Yorker writer Joan Acocella’s book on the choreographer:

    “I love to see their butts,” says Morris. That love is not erotic, or not mostly. If it were, their butts would look sexier, and presumably the men’s buttocks would be more in evidence than the women’s, which they are not. No, what he is after is the thing that is underneath, both literally and metaphorically. The buttocks are an innocent, hardworking part of the body — soft and round, the seat of humility, the place that gets kicked. To Morris they seem to represent something modest and tender and unacknowledged, the body’s vulnerability. At the same time, what they represent in dance terms is the body’s dignity, for they are the motor of action: they contain the pelvis, from which the movement originates. So in both senses the buttocks harbor a fundamental truth, and one that in Morris’s eyes is validated by the fact that it requires exposure. For him, truth is always hard to find. Veils have to be dropped. Once, describing to a journalist why he loved conducting choreographic workshops, he said, “It’s like we all pull our pants down” — a telling metaphor. In one of his dances, Striptease (1986), the performers do pull their pants down.

What I love so much about her language here is the way she slips readily between double entendre, metaphor, pun and joke (“It’s like we all pull our pants down”; “the seat of humility”). What I love so much about this passage is its acknowledgment of the body as crucial to a medium I’ve long struggled to understand. The bodily nature of an art form whose medium is almost entirely bodies was not exactly surprising — but dance is an art form so refined that low down talk about that medium often seems to be elided, avoided, absent.

Below a video about the deep connection Morris sees between these bodies and the music which guides them.

And finally, let’s stop where we begn — with a wordless rendition, arranged by John Cage, of the piece to which Morris choreographed “Socrates.” It’s by Erik Satie. It’s called “Socrate.”

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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  1. On 2010-4-7 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Some of you readers are aware that many posts from this blog are simulcast at Stanford University’s Arcade website. The unfortunate thing about simulcasting is that I have yet to figure out how to make comments that appear there appear here automatically & vice versa.

    Let me present to you Meredith Ramirez Talusan‘s comment that appeared on Arcade:

      I do like the Acocella quote in that it mimics what Morris is so good at, which is to inject just enough baseness into his classicism that his pieces become new and refreshing. Though to be honest, I personally didn’t catch on to this novelty until I learned part of one of his pieces for a repertory class. I’ve always thought of his work as staid and conservative until I danced it and found a lot of enjoyment in the restrained campiness it asked of me as a dancer, when your fingers unfurl from your hand such that they overextend ever so slightly, so you threaten to shift from the restrained classical line to something more vaudevillian, but don’t quite get there.

      I feel like dance criticism has to fulfill the conventions of criticism more than dance, so it’s not surprising to me that there isn’t much low-down talk in the field, since there isn’t that much low-down talk in criticism in general, except in certain fun pockets (how I love queer theory for this reason).

    And then my reply:

      I only have time for brief gloss on your comment (for which I should first say, thank you).

      I say gloss because I’m going to talk more about pop criticism than crit of a more classical and naturally elevated form like dance.

      I believe critics feel their natural duty is to elevate discussion of the artwork under their microscope. Perhaps this became especially true sometime after the 1960s with the rise of critics like Pauline Kael (who took popular culture very very seriously) and the new dominance of pop culture forms like rock music.

      To speak of a low down form like rock’n’roll — a form whose very name comes out of the basest instincts, i.e. “sex” — critics probably felt as if they needed to elevate their tone to be taken seriously; they needed to take on academic airs. Viz, Robert Christgau, the self-appointed “Dean of Rock Criticism.” This is not to say folks like Christgau are not important, vital & wickedly intelligent. (At the moment I’m digging into Christopher Smalls book Musicking, in large part due to a recommendation of said book which Christgau wrote during his long, distinguished career at the Village Voice.)

      However, out of this self-consciousness there naturally arose a disconnect from the work these critics of popular culture were talking about. Sad, sad, sad.

      Just two examples of critics who evade this problem, let me point to Richard Meltzer (by some measures the first rock’n’roll critic), and the art critic David Hickey. Neither is afraid to admit to the not-so-genteel contributory aspects of pop art: drugs, raw beauty, fucking, poverty, uneducated imagination.

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