How do you know the dancer from the dance?
That conundrum — almost a Zen Buddhist “koan,” that kernel of intuitive wisdom famously depicted in the “sound of one hand clapping” — is at the heart of the life and work of gay dancer-choreographer Matthew Morris who performs in D.C. with Project Brand New from Ireland on Saturday at the Flashpoint Gallery.
Morris, at 42 an “Aussie” who lives a gypsy lifestyle as itinerant performer worldwide, studied Buddhist meditation in Nepal. He creates dances today like “My Body Travels,” danced with one foot in a high high heel and the other in a sneaker to express, he says, with his body the fluid “trans-ness” of all strict and fixed gender.
“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,” wrote the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in “Among School Children” a poem that ends, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?”
That question dogged him as a boy, mostly growing up in western Australia in the 1970s, where he was shunned and ridiculed at his school — “incredibly bullied,” he says — for wanting to dance and “being seen as not quite one of the guys” because of what he calls his “artistic inclinations.”
Fast forward to today, and Morris looks back on what he calls “10 years based mostly in London, and three years in Switzerland, and now living in Berlin, but also always traveling.” After being what he calls “10 years single,” he relocated to Berlin, following a man there for a relationship that lasted about a year. “I’m happily single now” Morris says. “I think I function better as a single man, because this way I don’t have to answer to anybody.”
“I don’t think with this life that it’s really possible to be with someone, and anyway I don’t have the need or want to do so, because now I’m content and happy, within myself,” he says. “I don’t need someone else to complete me.”
In the past year he has begun to choreograph and with his work “My Body Travels,” 21 minutes long, he says “my initial idea was to explore the body in motion through space and time, emotions and identity.” He says that gender wasn’t really a focus at the time he first created the work, which is still evolving and by no means yet set.
“It’s still being improvised,” he says, “and so it’s never quite the same.”
“My Body Travels” is designed, he says, “as a mix of modern dance and dance theatre.” It features a suitcase constantly on stage but is divided into three distinct parts. He calls them “vignettes, or short stories,” which could all be about one person or three different people, saying he wants the audience to decide, and that he doesn’t want to be “too didactic.” In the first, he calls it “stream of consciousness, an eight minute monologue of his recorded voice to which he dances, famously in what he calls a “high high heel” and a sneaker, to explore “the duality within us, that we’re really never just one person.”
The second piece depicts “life on a treadmill,” in very gestural ways showing “a man in a silent world, searching for community.” The third piece he says is “slightly more meditative, about the search for spirituality.”