A playful American choreographer tackles Beckett

Enter Mark Morris, swathed in pink pashmina.

A playful American choreographer tackles Beckett

Enter Mark Morris, swathed in pink pashmina.

It was late May, and Morris, a choreographer, was on tour with his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, which was performing his Beatles-inspired “Pepperland” around Ireland. At the time, he was working on a new piece, “Sport,” which will have its premiere on Wednesday, alongside two older pieces, at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. But Morris isn’t just in the spotlight in New York this July. He will also stage three Beckett pieces for the Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival — his first foray into pure theater — which will run from July 25-28 in Northern Ireland. And where better to discuss this than over a Guinness in a pub once frequented by Beckett.

The pairing of Morris, an American choreographer known for his playfulness, and the Irish playwright (who died in 1989) famous for his dark, often obscure and mordant writing, is not an immediately obvious one. As Morris put it, “you could get someone English-er and cheaper.”

But Sean Doran, a director (with Liam Browne) of the Happy Days festival, said the connection was obvious to him.

“It lies in the lightness of being of his work,” Doran, who previously commissioned “Pepperland” from Morris, said in a telephone interview. “It is underestimated how lightly Beckett wore his seriousness. In my view, his work is as much about lightness as darkness, everyday language as much as intellectual depth. Mark has the seriousness of intent and lightness of communicative ability that puts him very much in the world of Beckett.”

Many artists, Doran added, “would shy off at the idea of doing Beckett.”

“But Mark never hesitated,” he said.

Morris’ version was that “Sean gives me way too little notice, to trick me into doing stuff.” More seriously, he added that he had always loved Beckett’s work and had seen innumerable productions of his plays. “I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that Beckett’s directions are extremely strict,” he said. “You have to stay within the rules, and yet sometimes a production works and sometimes it doesn’t. When Sean asked, of course I was interested.”

Although Doran has incorporated some dance into the festival (notably Maguy Marin’s “May B” in 2015), this is the first “Happy Days” commission from a choreographer. It is also perhaps the first time a choreographer has staged Beckett’s works; neither Doran nor the Beckett biographer James Knowlson could think of another instance. (Doran recounted commissioning Merce Cunningham to create a version of the Morton Feldman opera with a Beckett libretto in 2005; it ultimately fell through.)

“We really want to do more with dance and movement in the festival, and the commission from Mark, which we consider our headline work, is a very visible flag of that,” Doran said. He added that it was fundamental to the festival to bring new voices to Beckett’s work, “not just those who have been anointed in the tradition.”

Doran started the conversation with Morris by suggesting “Come and Go,” a three-minute work for three women, from 1965. He also proposed “Quad,” a pure-movement piece created for German television in 1981. Then Morris added “Catastrophe,” from 1982, which Beckett dedicated to the then-imprisoned Czech writer Václav Havel. Three works, he said, “seemed like the right number of pieces in that they all kind of refer to each other in their implication of infinitude.”

The three pieces are very different from one another, but they are alike in their exactingly detailed stage directions. (For “Come and Go,” they are longer than the written play itself.) “I felt a choreographer’s eye on that detail, literally down to the fingertips, would be very different to a theater director’s eye,” Doran said. “The work is so open to other art forms; it doesn’t have to be theater practice only.”

This kind of lateral thinking about Beckett is characteristic of the Happy Days festival. Doran started it in 2012 in the small Northern Irish town of Enniskillen, where the teenage Beckett attended the Portora Royal School, and where an Irish Republican Army bomb killed 11 people at a Remembrance Day service in 1987. From the start, the festival has had a determinedly eclectic approach, focusing on Beckett’s passionate interest in visual arts, music and movement, as well as highlighting his interests in cinema, comedy and sport. (This year’s other offerings include Beckett’s “Cascando,” “Ohio Impromptu,” and “Not I,” and also Schubert’s “Swan Song,” directed by Romeo Castellucci, and “Walking for Waiting for Godot,” a performance in the border area between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.)

“There are very few artists who could genuinely be described as total artists, but Beckett is that,” Doran said, adding that in the 1930s, Beckett seriously considered becoming an art critic and was a proficient pianist whose awareness of musical meter, rhythm and sound permeated his work. He was also, Doran said, intensely interested in space and movement, mapping out the precise gestures, angles and dynamics of his characters’ bodies.

“Beckett directed many of his own plays and always brought out the musicality of the work,” Knowlson wrote in an email. “Often his productions became works to which the word ‘balletic’ could be applied with an emphasis on repetition and echo of movements. Most of them were pieces of work that could well be described as choreographed.” It would be welcome, he wrote of the commission from Morris, “to have a choreographer bring his own experience with movement and gesture to these particular plays.”

Morris, who developed the work at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity in Canada, said he immediately decided to use dancers “who went way back historically to my earliest days.” He wrote to Rob Besserer, Susan Weber, Teri Weksler and Elisa Clark (who danced with Morris’ company more recently than the others). “The audition was an email that said, ‘Can you walk and are you interested?’” Morris said.

His approach was straightforward. “I am basically going straight from the written text and instructions. And then you question what Beckett didn’t specify, what is not excluded,” he said. “On purpose, I didn’t memorize or plan anything before starting.”

Although he said he was initially “nervous and feeling like a charlatan,” he found the process deeply interesting. The hardest part, he said, was the dancers’ anxiety about memorizing the lines in “Come and Go” and “Catastrophe,” in which he will also perform. Following in Harold Pinter’s footsteps (no pressure!) he will play a director rehearsing an unnamed play in which an immobile man (“The Protagonist”) on a podium is physically exposed and manipulated. “It’s much more horrific than I thought, but also much funnier,” Morris said. In an email message, he wrote that he had decided to play the director “so I’d have something to do in the festival with my friends.”

“It’s also very like my real job,” he said.

“At the beginning I didn’t realize I would have to speak,” Clark said in a telephone interview. “As a trained dancer, you know there are infinite possibilities in how you connect Shape 1 and Shape 2,” she said. “I realized you had to think about words like that, in terms of timing and connection.”

Morris began with “Quad,” which “seems like a dance Lucinda Childs might have thought of,” he said. “A startling original piece for a septuagenarian to have dreamed up,” Knowlson wrote of “Quad” in “The Life of Samuel Beckett,” adding that “this nonverbal piece for four dancers also developed naturally out of Beckett’s interest in choreographing movement and from his radical mistrust of language.” In the piece, four figures in brightly colored djellabas move to a percussive beat along the sides and across the diagonals of a square, avoiding the middle and one another.

Beckett wrote a detailed scheme for the order and sequencing of the movement, but didn’t specify pace or instruments. Morris decided to use four musicians, one linked to each dancer, and worked out the musical parts with the composer Ethan Iverson, a frequent collaborator. “The piece is radical, but the way it’s done is very pragmatic, just putting breath into it,” he said. “The timing is actually much harder than it looks; the point isn’t virtuosity, it’s expertise.”

In “Come and Go,” three women sit on a bench (Beckett detailed their exact positions, down to the angles of their hands), talk and whisper to one another, and each exit and re-enter in turn. The piece “is all about rhythm and timing,” Morris said. “And I am all about timing.”

Morris said that he hadn’t thought a great deal about what the pieces are about. “I don’t think it’s my business to impose that,” he said. “And I don’t like the idea of changing or updating things to be ‘relevant.’”

He added that he didn’t find Beckett’s work either opaque or depressing. “I’m hoping for a couple of laughs,” he said. “Perhaps I’m just a crazy optimistic American.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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