a look back at a dancer’s choreographer
I had been searching for a more complete and fulfilling experience of dance for years by then in 1986. I was an accomplished dancer, had danced on Broadway as a twenty-year-old, had worked with Tony Award winning directors and choreographers, had proven myself as a worthy dancer of the best choreographers in New York and abroad. I also shot myself in the foot many times. I always took that risk. I did not shy away from speaking up, standing up for myself and my principals, and challenging those I worked for. I loved being pushed and challenged, but I detested being manipulated, especially by directors and choreographers who were insecure, mean, and sub-standard. I could see through their fears and knew they were internally afraid to be vulnerable because they did not accept themselves or trust their talents. Often times their talents were minimal. It is common in show business to have mediocre people in places of powered and authority. Sometimes they got there through manipulation and deceit or outright lack of morals.
Me, on the other hand, always wanted things to be clean and ethical, to a fault. I was unforgiving and rather tyrannical in my defense of injustice. I was self-righteous and bull headed when I knew I was right and knew the other person was acting in really bad ways. For example, when I was twenty-one and touring in A Chorus Line, I was called down to the stage managers office after the show one night. The stage manager and dance captain were not happy with my performance. I did not perform the way I was supposed to, the way I did most nights. You see, A Chorus Line had a “Bible” which showed the exact places everyone on stage was to be at every moment in the show. This meticulous and thick record of every step in the show was indicative of how the show was run. When Broadway shows are a hit the directors “freeze” the show. That means everything must never change, the show is to be performed exactly the same way every night. That kind of thinking is reasonable and understandable. What made the show a hit should continue to be performed. But it is also dead theatre.
The problem is that it can’t actually happen. Besides, it is antithetical to the nature of art, which is always dynamic, fluid, and ever changing to the moment at hand. No performance is exactly like the one before. It is impossible. Sadly, this was the path successful shows took and successful directors paid reverence to. Rarely did this concept get challenged.
That night, once in the stage managers office, I was being berated for my bad performance. But as I listened, I knew the stage manager and the dance captain had no clue about truth on stage. Truth, as an actor, was my passion and my destination. I was trained as a Meisner actor and lived by the axiom “acting is the reality of doing in imaginary circumstances”. In Meisner acting the actor is truthful to a fault. When nothing happens in a scene, and no passion or fireworks are forthcoming, a Meisner actor is trained to accept that and not to push it. Pushing only takes the actor into phony-land, untruthful acting, and what actors demeaningly call “indicating”.
Once I understood the situation that night I jumped on my high horse. In no uncertain words I informed the stage manager and dance captain that I knew what I was doing, that because the scene was already dead before I came into it, and because the actors who were supposed to have a fiery, emotional dialogue before I came in flopped that night, I was simply being truthful. My high horse didn’t stop there. I let them know I was a trained actor, they weren’t, and that if I had to kiss their asses to keep this job, they could fire me right now.
Strong words from a punk newbie actor of twenty-one from the lowly fly-over state of Michigan. Looking back on it now makes me cringe inwardly. It is amazing how fearless I was, and how reckless. Yet, at that time I was really excited about becoming the best artist I could be. That part was good. That goal was what drove me to do things like not re-sign my contract after six months, even though I was making loads of money and traveling. No, my drive to be the best artist I could drove me to leave the show – been there done that – and find the next performing experience to learn from and grow. My career path was constantly on that trajectory. But my big mouth and quick temper were not always my best allies. And often they were my worst.
By the time I was twenty-seven I was no longer a novice and I was looking for something more, something further than the hollow experiences I had come to know as successful work in show business. I wanted to be able to really sink my teeth into my work, allow my whole self to infuse my work and finally feel the intense passion I had for performing with all it’s worth. I felt like I was always being held back a bit by others. No one seemed to ask for all of my passion.
Then, one did. A most amazing creature of dance. An exotic and unique individual whose path took him from the brilliant avant-garde work of Mercedes Cunningham to the boundless creativity and passion of Alvin Ailey. A man who was coming into his own as an up-and-coming choreographer. A man named Ulysses Dove.
The fact that I even met this man is a testament to my desire to grow and expand. I was a “commercial” dancer. My career was not in “concert” dance but was Broadway, TV, videos, etc. But something urged me to go audition for this gig. The audition notice said it was an opera by Phillip Glass, a renown composer whose minimal music was revolutionary and changing the classical idiom. It was to be directed by the visionary Robert Wilson, an American director who was making a huge career for himself in Europe, where art was definitely of a higher quality. And the choreographer was this Ulysses Dove, and he was looking for dancers with technique and passion for a ballet set right in the middle of the opera called the CIVIL warS.
My first impression as I learned Ulysses’ choreography in that rehearsal studio at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) was one of awe. I was shockingly inspired to dance hard, really hard. I was flying through the choreography because it seemed to call for that. It was transporting me to an elevated emotional experience of exquisite physicality.
Next thing I knew Ulysses called me out of the group of gorgeously talented dancers I was auditioning with. These were dancers from “real” companies, from the “concert” world, not from the commercial world. This was my first time auditioning at this level of technique. I was prepared though. My crazy drive to improve and be the best artist I could led me to take ballet classes in New York and all over the world, wherever I toured, and with real professional ballet dancers. I got to study incredible world class teachers that taught me in Toronto, Berlin, London, Tokyo, and more. While my Broadway colleagues barely took class, and when they did, they did so in jazz classes, not ballet, I was out by myself finding where the best ballet classes were in every city I toured. Ironically most commercial dancers stopped taking classes regularly once they started working and touring. But my teacher and mentor instilled in me that morning ballet class is a religion and the studio my temple. I have never stopped thanking him for instilling this in me. The profound experiences I gained by taking ballet classes, often with the best dancers in the world like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, are some of my fondest memories of my forty-year relationship with the art of dance.
When Ulysses called me out that afternoon, I was shocked. I was also thrilled. As Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods lyrics so aptly say, I was “excited and scared”. I was stepping out of the line to meet the Wolf. I knew he could teach me, or he could devour me.
He asked me my name. Then he turned to the hordes of dancers and said “I want you to watch Mark do the choreography. He doesn’t do it perfectly, but he does it with the abandon I’m looking for”. Holy Shit! Those words are forever imprinted in my head. Yes! I want to dance with real abandonment! That’s what I’m looking for! I want to abandon myself in ways I know I can, with all my passion and tenacity! And this guy just asked me for what I didn’t even know I was looking for! He was asking me to be me! For the first time in my career.
I flew through the stunning choreography. I jumped, turned, and kicked with all my abandon. I knew exactly what he meant, and I aimed to show it. I was put on the spot, asked to demonstrate the choreography for all the other male dancers in the room, and my adrenaline was pumped. I kicked it. It was an opportunity that I hadn’t ever seen. A choreographer asking an unfamiliar dancer to demonstrate? That doesn’t happen. The dance captain, or the choreographer’s assistant usually does that. Whatever was going to happen, this was a crowning moment for me. I felt accepted. I was recognized for who I am. I felt wanted and worthy. Finally.
As Life would have it, I got a phone call that same evening after the audition from a producer asking me would I leave New York tomorrow for Germany to replace an injured dancer in a European tour of A Chorus Line. I was also scheduled to go to a call-back for the CIVIL warS the next day: Ulysses asked me to come for the final audition. I knew I wanted to work for Ulysses, but I also was realistic and knew I might not get the job even though I had that incredible, life changing experience at the first audition. Until you sign the contract in show business, nothing is certain. My mentor taught me that too. But I also was out of work, it was November, going into the slow holiday season, and I needed a job. I would definitely accept the European tour if I did not get the gig at BAM.
This was 1986. We didn’t have personal computers or cell phones. We had phone books and friends. I got in touch with a friend who would know how to get in touch with Ulysses. I called the Ailey company, spoke to the manager and got Ulysses’ number. I called him. He answered. I told him my predicament. I told him I was not asking for him to tell me an answer one way or another whether he would hire me or not, but that if I was in the running at all I wanted to take the chance and audition for him tomorrow rather than board the plane for Europe.
Ulysses didn’t mince words. He said he liked my dancing and was planning on hiring me. I told him I would be there tomorrow. I got off the phone and didn’t know if I should jump for joy or just stay calm. For a part of me didn’t believe what Ulysses said. That part that was taught and knew that until the contract is signed, no gig is certain. I kept my calm. But inside I flip-flopped between ecstatic buoyancy and uncertain anticipation.
I went. I got the job. I signed the contract. I was going to dance in an opera for the first time, at the prestigious Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and it was for Ulysses, already a God in my mind.
Ulysses did not disappoint. On the contrary, every rehearsal with him was exceptional. It was an endless classroom of intense learning. No one I had worked for before said the things he said, asked for the things he wanted, and ran rehearsals on his way. We worked short hours, three hours max. In Broadway work you work eight hours a day, every day. You get a five-minute break every hour. It is like clockwork and is rigidly enforced by the stage management. It is reliable. It works.
But with Ulysses rehearsal was too intense for anything like that. He asked for full out dancing always. You could never “mark” (dance lightly) the choreography. Ulysses believed that “marking” caused bad habits. He wanted all your passion every time. His rehearsals were relentless. His energy matched his demanding tactics. He was a compassionate man but could be merciless with his demands. He was about all of us getting to the best artistry we had in us. He asked for dynamics and demonstrated the dynamics he wanted by making sounds that fit the rhythms of his choreography. He did not count. He did not want anyone to count. He wanted you to feel the choreography, not count it. He wanted us to go deeper and deeper into the movements and discover the inner molecules of liberation that came with his approach. He was a task master and a laser focused light that shined on his dancers. To be called one of his dancers, which I was to be called by him, was the highest honor a dancer could want. It was a highest honor in my life. I was so proud to dance for him. And yet I still had my own integrity. And, my hardheadedness.
We lost a female dancer to an injury at the last minute. We were scheduled to open the opera in two days. We had a day off, finally, the day before we were to open. The rehearsal schedule was grueling. I was hurting so bad I had acupuncture and chiropractic treatments daily. I was really looking forward to a day off to rest my body before we open. The other dancers were in the same boat.
But Ulysses asked us to come in for rehearsal. He said he needed all of us to come in so we would help the new dancer take her place in the ballet. All of us were beaten down and not in the mood for a suddenly called rehearsal on our one day off. We all banded together. We gathered and talked. We felt we wouldn’t dance our best on opening night if we had to come in and sacrifice our day off. We were going to tell Ulysses. I and my colleague were appointed spokes-people for the dancers. Of course, my big mouth was a natural choice. And my colleague was a dancer who knew Ulysses already because she danced for him in Europe.
I made a mistake. I regret what I did, and I don’t have many regrets. I generally look at regretful circumstances with an eye that it was a lesson to be learned from, thereby redeeming the regret. But this was hurtful. We really hurt Ulysses. I had no idea, in my naivete, that this would happen. But when someone invests so much of himself into you it is only natural that they be hurt when you fall out of accord. I learned this later. At that time, I was selfishly thinking of my weary body and my apprehension of dancing without rest on opening night.
But Ulysses needed us to sacrifice for the bigger picture. But I was not able to see the bigger picture. Neither were my colleagues. We were concerned with our own performances. Not the ballet as a whole.
Ulysses accepted our position. He kept the day off. But when I realized later how much I had let him down, how hurt he felt, I was devastated. That was the last thing I wanted. We dancers did not live up to his demands, challenges, and artistic integrity because of our own petty concerns. It was indeed a life lesson, but it was so painful for me to let him down, after everything I got from him, everything he gave to me and us, that I have always regretted that decision. Ulysses deserved more from me. And later in my life as a director and choreographer I had similar experiences and gained a deeper understanding of the chasm sometimes created in the arts between the higher positions and the lower ones. It taught me invaluable lessons.
Ulysses, being the man he was, did not hold a grudge and we kept our close alliance as dancer to choreographer. He was a friend. Years later, in 1994, he invited the same colleague and I from that incident to come see his new ballet he set for New York City Ballet. We sat with him in the best seats in the opera house as he watched his world premiere of his now famous work Red Angels. Afterwards at the gala, he then introduced us as his dancers. There was weight in that statement and anyone around Ulysses knew and felt that.
Ulysses Dove was an exceptional man of vision and talent which transcended the world of dance as we knew it at that time. Unfortunately, Ulysses, like many of my friends and colleagues at that time, died way too early from AIDS. A decade after I worked with Ulysses he was gone.
The moments I had with Ulysses were of the highest in my life. He guided me to higher artistry. He demanded my best. He was unrelenting in his ideal of dance. He inspired greatness in anyone he worked with. Ulysses will forever be etched in my heart and soul an artist of unique qualities that strove for perfection of the moment and of the present movement. As another great teacher once told me once, you can’t be perfect, but you can make your limitations beautiful.
Ulysses made dance beautiful. Watch here and glimpse a small piece of his monumental talent.