Mark Morris discusses rhythmic expression, visual communication in guest lecture

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This past Thursday, UC Berkeley undergraduate students gathered into a small conference room in Dwinelle Hall to prepare for their typical morning lecture. Only this time, they’d be hearing a completely unique perspective on their course’s primary topic.

The class, Comparative Literature 50, is entitled “Between direct speech and sensory excess: a poetry workshop.” It is also a Cal Performances Mellon-funded Course. Through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, campus instructors can propose arts-focused courses each year to be designed around Cal Performances programming. 

In this particular lecture, students of instructor Aurelia Cojocaru, a doctoral candidate in the department of comparative literature, had the opportunity to hear veteran choreographer Mark Morris discuss the relationship between dance and poetry, before attending a weekend performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Mozart Dances” at Zellerbach Hall. 

Much of the conversation, which was structured as a Q&A session directed by students, was anchored around one term — rhythm. The discussion was wide-ranging in the way it incorporated the idea of rhythm: from the relationship between rhythm and physical movement, to the distinction between rhythm in dance and rhythm in poetry. 

And yet, despite the breadth of information students received from Morris, specifically on rhythm and sensory experience, the conversation always seemed to come back to a consistent thread involving the role of rhythm in communicating one’s thoughts and emotions.

Morris started the conversation by jokingly warning students to not be so focused on taking notes during the performance of “Mozart Dances,” arguing that they’d have more to remember and take away from the show if they invested in it. “Don’t even hold a pen,” he said.

Students brought up a number of questions involving Morris’s creative process when translating a musical piece to the stage, particularly when interpreting rhythm and conveying a visual story through the often nebulous musical language on a page. Morris explained how he aimed to subvert audience expectations through his choreography, particularly the aesthetic notion that creators must “fill every space.”   

The conversation then shifted gears to the topic of symmetry, and the way in which Morris had incorporated symmetry — or a subversion of it — in rhythm and visual cues throughout the various parts of  “Mozart Dances.” Morris elaborated on the symmetry inherent in the selected works by Mozart, noting that the three pieces used in the show follow a “fast-slow-fast” format and create an auditory battle between the orchestra and the piano. 

Still, “Mozart Dances” doesn’t necessarily follow a traditional perception of visual symmetry. Morris noted that the symmetry in rhythm inhabiting his show was unique. And while the program is not “palindromic,” it does incorporate a number of recurring motifs that are artistically reassuring to audiences. 

Following Morris’s guest lecture, it was clear that several students in the class had taken away a new interpretation of rhythm in various forms of art.

“It’s wonderful to be able to speak with someone who has made this incredibly complex piece involving both music and dance, and who can offer us his own theory of rhythm,” said Cojocaru. “It’s really a privilege for us as a group to be able to speak to him directly, as practitioners and as audience.” 

“I liked that he (Morris) talked about different languages. That was really important, because in many ways, music and dance and poetry are all trying to express similar things, addressing different parts of what it means to be human, or how to explain an experience,” said first-year student Katie Biancalana Raker.

It was clear that students were grateful for the opportunity to hear from Morris, considering it gave them valuable background information leading into their own experiences as audience members of “Mozart Dances.”  But most importantly, it was meaningful to gain some creative insight into Morris’s long and decorated career in the realm of dance, performance and choreography. 

“When we were watching the parts of his previous performances, it was almost overwhelming — I felt like I didn’t understand something that was happening, that was integral to the piece,” said first-year student Zahra Kadir.

“But then when he was talking about rhythm, which I’m familiar with in writing and poetry … it was easier for me to recognize,” she said.

Anagha Komaragiri is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.