Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Choreographer Christopher Morgan

As a child growing up in Southern California, Christopher Morgan connected with his Hawaiian heritage by dancing the hula. Today, as a choreographer and dancer, dance still serves as a point of connection with his cultural background. But in pieces such as haku, Morgan’s recently premiered solo show, dance also becomes a tool to study his Native identity, question it, and stretch it to new possibilities.

This pairing of physical and intellectual exploration is standard for Morgan and his company, Christopher K. Morgan & Artists, which is based just outside of Washington, DC. Whether a piece revolves around concepts of isolation, water conservation, creativity, racial identity, or personal secrets, Morgan and his company use fluid, sinuous movements to challenge what we think about the subject at hand, not to mention the body itself. Morgan, who also teaches dance and currently serves as an artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, recently spoke with us about his career.

NEA: Your parents are both Hawaiian, and I know you grew up dancing the hula. How do you think this cultural background influenced your artistic voice?

CHRISTOPHER MORGAN: The hula is a dance form where each gesture really represents a specific word that's in the song, or the music that's being danced. Though my work as a modern dance choreographer isn't always perfectly literal or narrative, I've always been very interested in story and in the meaning behind work.

There were also certain things that showed up in my movement vocabulary, often in my hands. Though they weren’t literally hula gestures, as I began to look back over time, they felt connected to it. Certain ways of being low to the ground and connected into the floor I think were also connected to the hula, as well as watery qualities and ideas. I think those were definitely embedded [from the hula]—the sense of story and certain movement qualities.

It's also interesting because my parents were both born and raised [in Hawai'i], but after they'd been in the Marines and ended up stationed in California, they decided to stay there, which is where I was born and raised. I think that sense of displacement and distance—so much art comes from some kind of struggle—is one of the ways it started to manifest in my work. What does it mean to be displaced from home, and your ancestral land?

NEA: Speaking of narrative, I know that you studied writing in college. Is there any relationship for you between writing and dance?

MORGAN: Absolutely. For me, I often write throughout the creative process of a work. Journaling and creative writing are ways to help me organize my ideas and filter things so that as I start an editing process of a work, I have some clarity. Some of my work does incorporate text. The big solo work that I'm touring right now actually I would say is equal parts text, movement, and music really coming together in harmony.

NEA: Can you walk me through some of the other elements of your creative process?

MORGAN: If I'm doing my job well as a choreographer, I really let the work take charge. By that I mean once the work begins, I have to abandon my attachment to the ideas of what I thought it was supposed to be, and let the work evolve into what it wants to be.

I do always start with an idea. It might be about my Native identity, it might be about climate change, it might be about water. That idea then bears a research period. Sometimes that research involves going into the studio and exploring physically. Sometimes it involves writing. Sometimes it involves learning more about the subject matter. I did a piece about water conservation, and we wanted to use water onstage to create percussion as well as rain effects. We thought wouldn't it be beautiful if we could get some rain barrels and buckets, put them in people's gardens, save rainwater, and actually use that rainwater onstage. In order to that, I had to learn about collecting and saving rainwater, how to filter it, how to purify it, and how challenging and difficult it is to do that in an urban environment.

After that research process, it involves going back into the studio. Early on, in the studio part of the process, I like to make a lot of movement. I'll make a lot of different phrases that feel like they're connected to the themes and the subject matter and the ideas, so that the work has a language unto itself; a vocabulary of its own. A lot of times that becomes a tool for me: if I ever feel like I'm getting a little stuck, I can just jump into one of those phrases of movement.

I've definitely learned over the years to embrace the idea that making and editing are separate processes, and that I tend to do better if I don't judge anything as I'm making it. Let the muse speak to me and flow, and then afterwards, reflect on it and see if changes are needed. That was something that took several years to follow well. In my mind, that always made sense, but in practice, it wasn't always easy.

NEA: When you're making in the early stages, are you videotaping so you can remember, or taking notes?

MORGAN: I'm not one that uses a lot of videotape. With my dancers, we tend to use it a little bit more in late stages. I tend to really value the knowledge of the body and the mind. Video is such an easy and accessible tool nowadays, but I also think it's interesting to notice what the body remembers. Sometimes I think if something's forgotten, it wasn't that important to the work. I think what sticks is usually what's meant to stick. 

NEA: You mentioned that some of your works revolve around climate change. Can you talk about how your interest in environmentalism came about, and how you view this relationship between the environment and art?

MORGAN: I think, as many people say, climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. I would say I'm not a staunch environmentalist. I try and live a mindful life, but it is not the center of my existence. And that's something I grapple with, and sometimes feel a little badly about. I wish I dedicated more time to it, and did better on the environmental front than I actually do. I do all of the basic things—I don't use plastic water bottles, I turn off lights, I recycle—but I also drive a car, I fly a lot for work. So I think that tension between living and functioning in the world the way I choose to makes me feel like I have a responsibility to explore some of the questions that it brings up in responsible living. So I think that's where some of the interest came from: frankly, guilt.

I've also been a really big believer that art can speak to issues better than almost any other medium. Policy is wonderful and it can make big changes on grand levels, but sometimes it takes years for policy to take effect, and goes through rounds and rounds of battle and resistance. Education is a great tool, but sometimes certain people just tune it out—the Charlie Brown voice of an adult speaking at you, and you don't hear anything anymore. So I think art's power to move people from their gut and from their heart can affect greater change. I think it's a vehicle to provoke new thought and ask deep questions and get people to think about their own habits and ways of being.

NEA: You've danced all over the world, and you've lived in several different cities. Do you find that different communities respond differently to dance?

MORGAN: My quick answer is yes. Despite the shrinking of the globe, there are still vastly different perspectives and amounts of exposure to things. We just brought Pōhaku to Hawai'i and we were on two islands. And one of them is a very small, rural island, Moloka’i. There are no stoplights on the island, there's no fast food, there's no movie theater. There's no traditional theatrical venue to perform in, so we did the performance in a community center. They thought 160 people would come; 270 showed up and they were lined up outside on either side of the glass doors looking in. I think that part of the response was that I am Hawaiian, but I think there was also a curiosity about modern dance. It's not been brought to their island, if ever, not very often. They're seeing things on television that inform them a little bit about what that might be like, but to have it live and in-person is so different.

Then I think of communities I've been to in the Middle East where cultural and religious social values are so different that men and women don't touch in terms of dance partnering, which is a huge part of what I do and am interested in. Not even speaking to men and women, but just speaking to weight-sharing, and the physical possibilities that might introduce. That could be highly volatile in certain communities. On another end of the spectrum, I think about small to mid-sized cities in terms of their art scenes. I'm based in the DC area, which is not as wide-ranging as New York, where I lived for many years. Whereas I feel like I've pushed the boundaries here in the DC area, no one would bat an eye perhaps in a community that sees a wider range of what's out there and pushing envelopes. So I think all of those different contexts, they do make different audiences, and different feelings about what they're seeing.

NEA: I know you also do a good amount of teaching. What's the most important lesson that you try and impart on your students?

MORGAN: As an artist, I really believe you have to have a little bit of everything. There's that saying “jack of all trades; master of none.” But I think that the world we live in now, you have to be maybe not a master of everything, but beyond novice-level. As a choreographer and dancer, you have to be able to do a wide range of styles if you want to be working in the field. You have to be a strong technician, and you also have to be able to improvise and let go of your technique and deconstruct your body and your craft. I think you have to be able to be a businessperson and market your own work, speak publicly and knowledgably about your work in a way that appeals to people that know nothing about dance, and experts at the same time. So I think the biggest thing that I try to instill in my students is you have to be well-versed in many things and find how to integrate them together. No easy task.

NEA: Do you find that the challenges of being an artist today are maybe greater than when you started your career, at least in terms of technology?

MORGAN: It's almost too close to say if the challenges are greater. I think the challenges are definitely different. I think what jobs are available in the field and how funding is working has shifted, but that's always volatile and always shifting. What hasn't been revealed yet is how the explosion of the Internet and shifting ways of consuming art are possibilities. They are being explored, obviously, and in many different ways. But I think the full potential has not been tapped. I also think there's going to be a pendulum swing where people burn out on consuming things via a screen, and a craving for live, in-person interaction is going to heighten again. It might look different based on our technology and capabilities, but I think everything tends to go from one side of the pendulum to the other. I wonder where will it swing when it swings a different direction.

NEA: Can you talk about your transition from dancing to choreography?

MORGAN: It started as a critical voice in my mind when I was in other people's work. And I remember thinking to myself from time to time in rehearsal, "What an interesting choice this choreographer just made. I would have done x, y, or z." I started to listen to that and realized that my own voice was getting stronger as an artist and creator. I also felt like I had something to say. Many choreographers, and some of the ones I've worked with as a dancer, create a space for that to happen within their own work, but somehow that desire to say became stronger than my desire to do.

NEA: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MORGAN: As I've been receiving more and more attention about my Native identity, I'm so grateful that I can benefit from my identity being interesting to people. But I'm also aware of how precarious a position that is—possibly fleeting. I feel like there exists emphasis on inclusion and equity—the buzzwords have been shifting away from diversity—and I'm just so curious about the sustainability—another buzzword—of that, and how that's going to play out over the next few years. Is that a pendulum swing? Is that something that's going to have some lasting power? Are there going to be real programmatic shifts? I wonder whether this emphasis on equity and inclusion is going to have staying power.


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