Seven University students to participate in Mark Morris Shadow Program

Sam Black, a company member of Mark Morris Dance Group, leads a class of Univeristy of Illinois students at the Nevada Dance Complex on Mar. 10, 2014.

It is not every day a teacher tells his students to begin class by tapping their heads or rolling on the ground from side to side. However, this is precisely how class began for the 14 University dance students who attended a modern dance class at the Dance Administration Building on Monday, taught by the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). And, for seven University students, their experience with Mark Morris does not end there.

Sam Black, the group member who will be teaching modern classes at the Dance Administration Building throughout the week, had students twist and turn and perform fast combinations across the floor, exposing them to Morris’ own choreography. 

Morris formed MMDG in 1980, and has since created more than 140 works for the company. He is also internationally recognized for being the Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels from 1988 to 1991, as well as for his involvement with choreographing productions for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and The Royal Opera, among others. 

Studying with Morris will soon be a reality for Katie Williams, junior in FAA, as she has recently accepted to the Mark Morris Shadow Program, which allows students to interact with the company and learn what being a professional dancer is truly like. The program is sponsored jointly by the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and Dance at Illinois. Seven students were selected this year who exhibited the ability and maturity to be part of the program, according to the criteria listed on the Dance department’s website.  

During MMDG’s time at Krannert, students in the School of Dance have the opportunity to take company classes, attend rehearsals, join company members in outreach activities and watch performances. However, during the summer, students get to take this experience even further by attending MMDG’s two-week-long summer intensive, where they will learn Morris’ techniques and have the opportunity to perform his choreography on a professional stage. 

“It is a very beneficial relationship,” Morris said. He states it is a great opportunity for “youngish, serious dancers to learn the ropes of a professional obligation.”  

But Williams already knows what to expect, since she has danced on Morris’ stage once before. She was selected as a program participant last year and will be able to remain a shadow for Morris until she graduates. 

“I want to join a (professional dance) company, so (it’s a) prime opportunity to see what it’s like and if this is something I really want to do,” Williams said. 

Williams recalled the overwhelming nervousness she had on her first day taking class with the company. She explained it was “just like in the movies” with the ballet bars set on stage where they would take class every day. She further explained what she deemed a “surreal and eye-opening experience,” which consisted of hours of ballet technique, challenging choreography and corrections from Morris, which would test her ability and confidence. 

When you receive corrections or you receive any feedback from any choreographer, especially Morris, it is important to not take anything personally, and to “just laugh it off,” Williams said.

She explained that Morris is a very musical and a brilliant choreographer, which is something that she will always respect.

Ready to leap into her second year in the program, Williams explained that she knows what to expect, but will still be nervous walking in the doors of Morris’ classroom once again. 

Overall, Williams decided that her motto is to just keep going with the flow and enjoy the experience now that she has already been around the block, so to speak. She explained she will also be with other shadows, some who have done this up to three times already.

Bridget Grissom, senior in FAA, is also part of the program and will be undergoing her third year in the Mark Morris Shadow Program this year.  

She explained that once, in class, Morris asked her why she was doing something a certain way and expected her to answer in front of the class.

“This put the responsibility on me to question my training and the functionality of the way I was moving. This is an important lesson for dancers to learn, because when we leave the University, we are the only ones in charge of our own training and careers,” she said. 

Morris said that the program “ain’t easy but it is satisfying and edifying, especially for the ‘Shadows’ involved.  (It is) an eye-opener.” He will be on campus later in the week to teach the company class before their performances. 

Black, who has been a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group for eight years now, explained that his best advice for students applying to the program in future years would be “to put yourself out there” and to get people to recognize you than by always taking classes and networking. 

Morris’ own suggestions for aspiring dancers are to “open (their) eyes, read, learn music, be in the world, grow up, oh … and learn how to dance really well.”

The MMDG will also perform three new dances on March 14 and March 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Krannert Center of Performing Arts. The evening will culminate with Morris’ take on The Rite of Spring with live music by The Bad Plus.

Amelia can be reached at [email protected]