This interview is an excerpt from my Dance It Up – May 2017 article on AltDaily.com.
JAIME: How long have you been dancing with the Mark Morris Dance Group?
SAM BLACK: I joined the company as an apprentice in 2006, and became a full company member in 2007.What initially drew you to dance with the company?
I grew up watching MMDG perform at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, CA, where I’m from. I can’t say precisely what first made me want to dance with the company, because there were many things – the musicality and rhythm of his dances, the sense of community I felt watching his dances, the accessibility and friendliness of the dancers onstage. It looked so fun and free, but with a certain seriousness too. I somehow knew it was important work.
How is dancing with MMDG different from dancing elsewhere?
I’ve danced for Mark way more than I’ve danced for anyone else, so this has been the bulk of my professional experience. Mark is incredibly specific about what he wants; where other choreographers often don’t talk about details, Mark thinks the details and specifics are the most important and interesting part of a dance. Otherwise it just ends up looking like a dance you’ve seen before, instead of something new and different. Also, the experience of dancing to live music has been beyond wonderful.
The performance that will be taking place in our area is “Dido and Aeneas;” could you give us a little glimpse of this story? What is the overall tone of the piece?
“Dido and Aeneas” is a dance by Mark Morris, set to the opera by Henry Purcell, and based on the classic story by Virgil. It is a love story between Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, Trojan hero. A jealous sorceress plots to thwart their love; there are witches, spirits, and sailors. The opera, while mostly a tragedy, has plenty of moments of levity and nuttiness.
“Dido and Aeneas” incorporates operatic vocals into the live music. Is this unique to this piece or are there other MMDG works in which live vocals are present?
Mark has made a number of dances to vocal music, although “Dido” is probably the one we perform most often. MMDG has a commitment to performing to live music in every single performance– the only pieces we do with taped music are ones in which the vocals would be nearly impossible to replicate live. For example, Mark made a dance called “Going Away Party” set to the last ever live recording of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Because this is a narrative dance, the story is being told not just through the singing and libretto, but through the gestures and moves onstage. Mark developed a physical language that he uses to tell the story– every time the word “love” is sung, the dancers make the gesture for “love.” Ditto “fate,” “Carthage,” “smile,” etc. Another layer he added is that the gestures for “love” and “hate” are the same, maybe implying that the two are intricately related.
How much of an impact do these vocals make on the overall effect of “Dido and Aeneas?” Are they more influential to the story or to the emotion of the dance?
Because the music is always live, it’s slightly different every night. The musicians rehearse enough to get the piece consistent, but there are tiny differences in tone and dynamic and tempo in every performance. I think the result is that the entire performance is completely alive and present, since the dancers really can’t stop focusing for one second. With a narrative dance like “Dido,” those subtle changes of tone really infuse the dance with a range of emotions.
What response do you hope the audience will have to “Dido and Aeneas?” What would you like them to reflect on after the performance?
I hope this piece makes you think, or moves you, or makes you angry or sad, or makes you want to dance. Basically, there’s no wrong response to a performance – come in with an open mind, and know that whatever you feel afterwards, you’re right.