Jorden Morris | Interview
Jorden Morris describes his productions as "monsters." The Royal Winnipeg Ballet choreographer has adapted many stories to ballet, including Peter Pan and Three Musketeers, but it's Moulin Rouge that has garnered the most attention for the Canadian company, surpassing box-office sales of its second biggest moneymaker—Peter Pan. The former RWB principal dancer talks about the taxing process of making a so-called "monster" and whether or not a certain Cyrano will ever don tights and ballet slippers in the near future.
You take inspiration from whimsical stories: Peter Pan, Three Musketeers, Moulin Rouge. What draws you to these characters?
I’ve always had a great interest in literature and fantasy. It’s important to bring those stories to the stage, because the younger generation isn’t always that interested in looking at historical literature. Plus, they’re such well-crafted stories—the characters, their dramatic arc, their depth. I find that well-crafted characters translate to the stage.
What are some challenges when adapting to ballet?
It’s important that the characters translate to dance. You can have certain characters that are wonderful from an emotional standpoint, but that doesn’t always look good onstage. You have to craft movement around characters that, in my mind, have some natural movement in their being.
The shows have had successful runs. Do you think people prefer taking in something visual, rather than reading it from a book?
Probably. People enjoy being told a story. They won’t always pick up a book and read a story. That’s a general thing in our society; we’re more inclined to want something rather than dig it out ourselves.
Do you have thoughts on what you’d like to do next? Any stories you’re dying to tell?
I’d really like to do Cyrano de Bergerac. You’ve got that great love triangle between Cyrano, Roxane and Christian, a great female character in Roxane. You’ve got the two great male characters in there. I love Alexandre Dumas novels, but if I do one more big production, I would love it to be Cyrano.
I heard an "if." Is there some trepidation there?
I just did a lecture at a university, and they were asking about these monster productions like Moulin Rouge and Peter Pan. There are huge sets, people flying, sword fights—all that stuff. People don’t realize that it takes two years of my life every time I do one big production. It’s incredibly gratifying at the end, but it’s also an incredibly draining process, physically and mentally. There's two years of preproduction. People only see the work when I get into the studio and start choreographing on the dancers. That’s six to eight weeks before the show opens. What people don’t see is the year and a half of putting the soundtrack together, the year and a half of going through drawings with my set designers, going into construction then going into the shop to make sure the carpenters and welders are doing everything properly. Every costume that’s built, I have to finalize, so they’re bringing me a hundred and fifty costumes a day going, “Is this okay?” Every question gets filtered to me. But I have a hard time saying no, so I’ll probably just end up doing it anyway. [Laughs]
You’ve endured something like six knee surgeries during your dance career. Was there ever a moment where you thought about doing something completely unrelated to dance?
My surgeon was like, “I fixed everything I can fix and if you blow it out again there’s nothing else I can do.” That was pretty much it. I was ready at that point. I completely agreed with him and thought, I don’t want to go through rehab again. I went into teaching and coaching right away and didn't really have time to think about it. I’d been a principal dancer, so I could hand out roles that had been created on me. It’s always good to have a principal coaching, just because I’d done all the major roles for so many years. In dance, it’s really important that there’s a physical handing down of the work from choreographers who maybe aren’t alive anymore. I still do quite a bit of teaching and coaching. I enjoy it. I think it helps my choreographic brain because I’m constantly teaching the art form, so I’m learning it myself and dissecting it, developing it and experimenting with it. It sort of feeds the choreographic side of me, so when I get into a studio and start choreographing, it’s all ticking in there.
How did your experience at NYU shape your choreographic intentions?
The professor that we worked with a lot, Dr. Greg Scott, was a huge influence—his depth of studying movement itself, not just dance, but the physical attributes of the human body. Then studying the early French choreography—that probably ties into why I was drawn to Three Musketeers and Moulin Rouge, because my first in-depth study was early French choreography—I found it fascinating. France at that time was such an amazing place. Really, a lot of choreography that comes out today started in France. I also had fabulous teachers in Claude Bessy and Serge Golovine from the Paris Opéra.
You had to get permission from the Moulin Rouge cabaret to stage the production. I read they say no to prospective producers roughly 20 times a day.
It was a long process. It was like I had to audition. They asked me to send them a script and a storyboard, so I sent them a script and storyboard. They asked me to send them music, so I sent them music. They asked how I was going to incorporate Moulin Rouge into the production, and so I had to say, step by step, this is what I want to do, this is what the producers want to do, and this is how we’re planning to do it. At the end of the day, they said, “We like everything you’re saying, so go ahead and choreograph it.” They actually flew from Paris to Minneapolis for the opening to see it live and give it the final approval.
Wow, what if they didn’t like it?
I know, right! I was freakin’ out. I see this whole entourage from Paris and they’re sitting with their arms crossed, watching the show, and I’m like, “Oh, my God.” Fortunately at the end, they said, “Fabulous, we love it, go ahead. Keep doing it.”
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs Moulin Rouge Friday 2 at 7:30pm, Saturday 3 at 8pm and Sunday 4 at 2pm at the Auditorium Theatre. Purchase tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.