Q&A: ‘When I create a work, I look into the past’

Cambodian dancers show their American counterparts how it’s done at the Khmer Arts theatre.
Cambodian dancers show their American counterparts how it’s done at the Khmer Arts theatre. Eli Meixler

Q&A: ‘When I create a work, I look into the past’

In conversation with two choreographers: Sophiline Shapiro and Mark Morris

Mark Morris and Sophiline Shapiro are two of the most widely respected dance choreographers within their respective fields. The Mark Morris Dance Group is known in the US for its exuberant, inventive style, while Shapiro’s Khmer Arts has been a pioneering force in the re-invigoration of traditional Cambodian dance. On the last day of Morris’s two-week trip to the Kingdom, the choreographers joined forces to lead an afternoon of workshops at the Khmer Arts Theatre in Takhmao. Afterwards, they sat down together to talk.

Phnom Penh Post: You’ve both gone from being dancers to directing your own companies. How did that transition come about?
 Mark Morris: I didn’t intend to have a dance company. I was a very good dancer, and I started choreographing when I was about 15. I had my first real concert at 24 or so.

Sophiline Shapiro and Mark Morris.
Sophiline Shapiro and Mark Morris. Eli Meixler

I decided that if I wanted to rehearse and present our work, and I wanted to pay people and give them insurance, and for it to be a real job, it would have to be a dance company. It started as peers and friends and it still is, except now I’m twice as old as them.

Sophiline Shapiro: Very similar. Khmer Arts was created by me and John [Shapiro] in 2002. In 2006 I realised that coming back to Cambodia and developing these works for three months at a time was kind of difficult for me. 

I wanted to create an environment where the dancers can be taken care of. I would love to have insurance for them. As we grow older our bodies are aching, and we should be having assistance then to take care of us.

Mark: What you must do is know that your career as a dancer is going to end, and you have to be prepared to do something else.

PPP: As choreographers, you’ve both been celebrated for combining traditional forms with contemporary movement. Do you think there’s a particular power that comes from that arrangement?
Mark: But there’s no other way to work. There’s no such thing as sui generis [something that is not like anything else] – it can’t be done. I’m going to make up a dance, and I can do anything I want. It doesn’t even matter if it’s old or new. Somebody made up walking, and we all walk. All dancing is walking, running, turning. I don’t own the rights to spinning, it just feels good.

PPP: Sophiline, do you feel that same freedom?
Sophiline: In a certain way. When I create a work, I like to look into the past, to see what is the great thing of the past and what is the failure of the past. Another thing is I look to the future. I do learn from many choreographers in the world.

PPP: Mark, you have spoken in the past about dance as an action that highlights our own mortality. What do you mean by that?
Mark: Well, it can only be done by living people.

Sophiline: What is a dance? The dance is the shape that we as women shape our bodies into in the dance. If we just walked you wouldn’t know that we were dancers.

Mark: Of course you would. You walk different! Sorry – go ahead.

A performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group.
A performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Sophiline: So what makes us dancers is when we do this, and you can only see dance when we dance. And I think that is the most valuable thing about dance. You have to come and see it.

Mark: Right, but also dance, as far as I’m concerned, is not much more than an organised activity that has a pulse. People were using rhythm to coordinate efforts before there was any language. I was teaching skipping to these dancers because as soon as you start learning how to dance you forget how to skip. It takes an hour to teach the thing that you made up when you were six.

Sophiline: These are the things that I would like to explore. I see that in Cambodian dance we don’t roll, we don’t leap, we don’t turn.

Mark: Because it’s too hot! I’ve noticed that hot weather dancing is very different to cold weather dancing. In Northern European dancing there’s lots of jumping to stay warm, and they’re very often group dances where people are together holding hands.

Sophiline: I try to incorporate new things, but only if it fits to the aesthetic. For example, when we pose our leg to the back, I try to push it a little bit higher. And I try to incorporate leaping movements. I – the one who created the movement – can do it, but my dancers can’t.

Mark: Sure they can, you saw them today. They’re young people – they can do anything.

Mark Morris Dance Group's Khmer Triumph

PPP: How have the dancers found the experience?
Mark: I’d say they’re having the time of their lives. Most of them are in this part of the world for the first time.

Sophiline: Our dancers? They were nervous! We just got back from Singapore so they’re kind of tired, but they were enjoying it. You are such a good teacher that you turn them around, make them more enthusiastic, and I appreciate that.

Mark: I allowed them to be more enthusiastic, I didn’t make them. I won’t make them!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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