Choreographer Mark Morris and performer/writer Julie Andrews would seem to have little in common — though I would definitely enjoy eavesdropping on their conversation, should they ever meet — but both have new memoirs out this fall. Always intrigued when an artist I admire wants to set down their life story in a book, I pounced on both of these, eager to spend some time with their voices in my head.
The famously frank Morris, in “Out Loud: A Memoir” (Penguin Press, $30), starts things off by cutting directly to the chase: Though quick to say that “this is a memoir, not a cookbook — I can’t tell you the recipe exactly,” he devotes much of the book’s prologue to talking about his art. When creating a new work, he starts with music that he loves (or at least “can bear to listen to hundreds of times”), and never works alone in the studio; everything he does is made up on dancers. The dancers contribute not by improvising, but by dancing. (“Very few actors are playwrights; very few opera singer are composers.”)
“The language I create for a particular dance has to resolve itself in that dance,” he writes. “It’s a complete thought. There will be no sequel.” He doesn’t like to give talks before a performance, or to write program notes. “The dance is all I want people to see. If it’s not in the dance, it’s not there.”
That prologue alone is worth the book’s price, if you’re someone who cares about dance and creation. But even if you’re not, you might still enjoy Morris’ retelling of his childhood as an arts-loving boy growing up in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood, where his father taught at Franklin High and his artistic mother encouraged her son’s early passion for Spanish dance.
Morris remembers studying at Verla Flowers’ dance studio in Greenwood (his eye for detail is rich: “Her hair was done fresh once a week, and you could tell what day of the week it was by how far it had collapsed”), seeing fan dances at the Bon Odori Festival at the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, folk dancing with the Koleda collective and finding himself both as a dancer and a young gay man. (As with everything, Morris is irreverent on this topic. “I first had sex with a woman when I was fifteen on a trip to Vancouver,” he writes. “She’s now a midwife in Arizona, probably still recovering from the experience.”)
Having moved to New York after some terribly sad high-school years (his father died; the family home burned down), Morris writes of a career that began when he was a still-teenage dancer for hire. After working in the companies of Eliot Feld, Lar Lubovitch and Laura Dean, Morris’ path led to his own company in 1980, success across Europe and, finally, a home: the Mark Morris Dance Center, which opened in Brooklyn in 2001.
All of this is told with wit and candor (Morris muses, fascinatingly, on how being two generations older than many of his dancers has necessitated rethinking of his sometimes harsh directness), with names like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Maurice Béjart dancing on and off the pages. I remember the breathless first time I saw Morris’ masterpiece “L’allegro,” years ago; “Out Loud,” which has that fresh vividness of a Morris dance, brings that feeling back.
Morris will speak about “Out Loud” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9 at Town Hall Seattle; tickets are $36/person or $42 for two people (both prices include one copy of the book). Information: strangertickets.com.
And his “The Hard Nut,” performed by Mark Morris Dance Group, will play at the Paramount Dec. 6-15. It’s set to the Tchaikovsky “Nutcracker” score and inspired by the “gothic, creepy” original 1816 E. T.A. Hoffman story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” If you go, look closely at Mrs. Stahlbaum; she has elements, Morris says in the book, of Verla Flowers.
While Morris isn’t afraid to call someone a “creep” or worse, Andrews is much more circumspect; she seems to have rarely met a soul she didn’t like. A beloved icon of stage and screen for more than six decades (full disclosure: I interviewed Dame Julie once, and she was so utterly lovely that I walked on air for days afterward), Andrews is the face and voice of many childhoods. A lot of us grew up watching “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music,” associating her presence with a place of goodness, safety and decency.
Her previous autobiographical work, “Home: A Memoir of My Early Years,” showed that all was not chim chim cher-ee in Andrews’ life. It was an elegantly written and often poignant look back at a troubled childhood spent growing up in vaudeville with her mother and stepfather, and at the unexpected joys of her early successes on the West End and Broadway. A thread throughout that book — and its greatest pleasure — was Andrews’ description of what it felt like to perform; how she learned that she could lift spirits by sharing her gift, in the waiting dust of a theater.
Captivated by that book, I’d long hoped that she might write another — and here it is, “Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years” (Hachette, $15.99), written with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, and mostly covering her movie work, from her debut in “Mary Poppins” to her many films with her second husband, director Blake Edwards. And it’s … oh, it pains me to admit that my favorite celebrity has written a dull book. But she has.
There’s certainly fun to be had in “Home Work”: the secrets of the singing robin in “Mary Poppins” (by the way, Andrews does all her own whistling); fond memories of shooting “The Sound of Music” in Salzburg, Austria (she’s never quite understood the lyric, “like a lark who is learning to pray,” either); and a giggle-worthy prank that she and chum Carol Burnett pulled on director Mike Nichols. (His response is the best part of the story.)
But mostly, “Home Work” feels like a dutiful retelling of a busy time — it’s filled with travel, relocations and logistics — during which Andrews worked with many delightful people. “And then we did this” is a trap too many memoirists fall into; Andrews, alas, is no exception here.
There’s a curious choice in “Home Work” to occasionally use excerpts from Andrews’ diaries, sometimes lengthy ones. While these are almost always more vivid than the rest of the book — they feel less careful, a clearer window into her thoughts — the effect is of an odd editorial shortcut. (Why isn’t the entire book in this voice?)
“Home Work” is an admirable book in many ways: Andrews’ frankness about how therapy has helped her, her clear-eyed assessment of her beloved but troubled husband, “Blackie,” and the graceful kindness that’s evident on every page. But by the time it comes to an abrupt end in the 1980s, I was thinking about reading “Home” again instead.
I still adore Dame Julie, with all my Mary Poppins-loving heart. But I doubt I’ll be revisiting this book.
“Out Loud: A Memoir” by Mark Morris, Penguin Press, 384 pp., $30
“Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years” by Julie Andrews with Emma Walton Hamilton, Hachette, 352 pp., $15.99
Author appearance: Mark Morris will discuss “Out Loud” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9, at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle, townhallseattle.org.
“The Hard Nut,” performed by Mark Morris Dance Group, runs Dec. 6-15 at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle, theparamount.com.