Mark Morris Dance Group Interview

Mar 16, 2016

Mark Morris Dance Group’s Dido and Aeneas is a veritable feast of talent – from the dancers, to the chorus and soloists, to Morris himself conducting. It's an understatement to say we can’t wait for the show on Mar 30! In the meantime, we caught up with dancer Domingo Estrada and mezzo soprano Jamie Van Eyck to chat about Dido and Aeneas, working with Mark Morris, New York restaurants, and everything in between.

Domingo Estrada, Dancer

How did your career take shape? How/When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a professional dancer?

My career truly began at home in my living room where my mother taught me how to partner dance. My parents went to many social dances, therefore I wanted to learn in order to not just sit on the outskirts when I joined. I became fascinated with our local folklorico group and joined it when I was 11 and danced for 10 years.  Eventually, I became interested in hip hop dancing. Along with the help of my father, I taught myself through watching the movie “Breakin'.” New friends in high school knew I loved grooving and dancing for fun and asked if I would be interested in starting a crew. So, we learned plenty of dances via music videos and video concerts. Specifically, we learned many dances from the popular group *NSYNC.

During this period, my mother, knowing my passion for dance, suggested I go to the movies to see a movie she thought was about hip hop. Turned out the movie was “Center Stage.” Now, my sister danced all of her years growing up at a local studio, but I was yet to be captivated by ballet until this movie. A part of dancing I hadn't tried? A new challenge? Why not! I went to a local studio to inquire about Nutcracker auditions my mom saw in the paper. Although I was a week late, since I had experience with social dancing, I was invited to take part in the opening party scene. From then, I was highly encouraged to give ballet a try. Not just as a benefit to my athletic commitments, but because they saw potential - and really needed more male dancers.

I started taking ballet with the little girls - that was fun and cute - and eventually studied other techniques to improve my foundation, which was nearly nonexistent. My high school guidance counselor proposed I audition for college dance programs. I was absolutely on-board and knew then I wanted to pursue a professional dancing career. This finally led me to Texas Christian University. There, with an excellent program and outstanding faculty, along with my summers spent attending the American Dance Festival, is where I was molded into a dancer. A technical dancer.

What was the most challenging piece of repertoire you’ve performed so far?

The most challenging piece of work, for me, would have to be Dido and Aeneas. I play the role of Aeneas. There are few works of Mark's we perform regularly that involve a character role and Aeneas demands achieving the greatest depths of the character. There's a two dimensionality to the movement that illustrates the period of the story, which takes some extra rehearsal. I am thankful for having danced this role in the past and try my best to pull from, and expand upon, my past experiences.

Do you have a role or piece that is your favorite to perform?

Grand Duo, set to Lou Harrison, is my favorite piece of Mark's. It has a very tribal and primitive sense with grit and deep texture in its specificity what I feel is right up my alley. The movement encompasses and highlights my personal strengths as a dancer, mover, and performer. My colleagues and I really get loose and have fun with its experimental and experiential qualities.

What would you say has been the highlight of your dance career thus far?

The highlight of my career, thus far, came last Feb 2015. It was a feeling. The feeling of artistry. I know I'm not the most technical, flexible, or best dancer, but I noticed that something artistically shifted while on the stage. It's virtually indescribable. It didn't feel like performing. It didn't feel like the choreography. It was breaking through to a different dimension of my self that can only be felt. That was exhilarating.

Can you tell us more about Dido and Aeneas and the story behind the dance? What roles do you play in the performance?

The story is about love, passion, deceit, obedience, betrayal, defeat, heartbreak, and death. Mark is an excellent storyteller and translates these elements, physically, to convey the story exquisitely. I am honored to play the role of Aeneas.

 What does a typical week of rehearsal look like for you?

When we are at home in our Brooklyn studio, we have class from 10:30 am-12:00 noon. Then we rehearse from 12:15 pm-2:00 pm. Lunch is from 2:00 pm-3:00 pm and then we rehearse again from 3:00 pm-5:30 pm. Also, I like to come in early and stay late for preparations, stretching, cross training, and anything else I need for my body and body of work.

What is it like working for and with Mark Morris?

Mark Morris is a fascinating individual and choreographer. Obviously, I've gravitated towards his work for the musicality and physical aesthetic. He has an impeccable ear for music, a varied background in dance techniques, and a vast vocabulary in every sense, just to name a few attributes. He has quite the knack for physically illustrating music through these qualities. He is an artist. With the pursuit of compelling art comes great involvement, clear visions, and a heap of minute detail. When art and/or the investment of passion includes the participation of others, the end results don't come without trials, errors, frustrations, etc. Some days Mr. Morris is my boss. Mostly, it's exhilarating working with a great artist alongside other fabulous artists.

What is the most challenging part of being a professional dancer?

Thankfully we get to travel a ton with the group, though I feel disconnected from home, at times, since we are gone so frequently. I have a four-year-old son that lives with his mother in Texas, which makes it challenging, time-wise, for visits. That said, it's very difficult to find the kind of elite and steady work I have here in New York. Overall, the constant traveling can take an exhausting toll.

What is the most rewarding part of being a professional dancer?

The most rewarding part of being a professional dancer, for me, is giving. I love giving to people. I enjoy giving art to people. Giving myself, entertaining, and giving something greater than myself is worth it. Also, my body is an instrument and it pleases me to keep my body in tune. I've always been physical and musical and am extremely happy it is my line of work.

What is your favorite thing to do when you are not in rehearsal or on the road touring?

I always wanted to be an actor growing up. I love watching movies and TV shows. I love jamming out to music. I can't stay "on the couch" too long, so I go for a run or workout. I definitely take days off, though as my body needs the rest. I also really enjoy hanging out with my roommates and catching up with friends. And, of course, with weeks off I visit my son and family back in Texas.

What is your favorite restaurant in New York City?

I don't necessarily have a favorite restaurant. I cook at home, mostly, and rarely go out to eat, especially since I usually eat out on tour so often. I usually go local and get delicious tacos at a deli in South Park Slope in Brooklyn. Another place I enjoy on occasion is Limón Jungle in Hell's Kitchen in the City. Needless to say, NYC has such a great variety that on any given day I am able to meet up with a friend for food, and we can pick a neighborhood, find a place, and be quite satisfied.

Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo soprano

How did your career take shape? When did you begin singing opera?

My love for singing began when I was pretty young, with elementary school musicals and concerts at church.  My parents were supportive and started me in voice and piano lessons. I began college as a journalism major, but I missed singing and the stage. So, I switched my major, and have been studying music and making a career as a singer ever since. I didn't grow up with opera, so I first learned about it and grew to love it as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

How/when did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as a professional singer?

I really knew that I wanted to make a career as a singer during graduate school at The New England Conservatory. It was so exciting to be in a city like Boston, just down the street from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and surrounded by professional musicians. I got my first big performance opportunities there and I knew I wanted to stick with it as long as possible.

What does a typical week look like for you? Are you rehearsing all week long?

For the first 10 years of my career, I lived all over the country, singing with different opera companies, symphonies and music festivals.  During that time, I was rehearsing every day. There were daytime and evening opera or symphony rehearsals, rehearsals for education or outreach performances, and also my own personal practice, learning music or working on vocal technique. There weren't many days off and we often rehearsed on or around holidays. It was exciting, but the schedule was tough. Now I balance my performing career with a teaching position. I'm an Assistant Professor of Voice at Baylor University in Waco, TX. In addition to teaching, I make time nearly every day to learn music and practice for upcoming performances. I love the balance of teaching and performing - each one makes me better at the other.

Can you tell us more about Dido and Aeneas and the role(s) you sing?

Dido and Aeneas was one of the first English operas ever written (around 1685), and it's the only true opera written by composer Henry Purcell. Purcell loved drama, and he was known for expertly shaping and phrasing the English language in his vocal works. These qualities are beautifully evident in Dido and Aeneas, and the piece remains relevant and exciting to 21st century audiences. Dido is the Queen of Carthage and she has fallen in love with the Trojan warrior, Aeneas. The story is based on a portion of Virgil's epic poem, The Aeneid. Dido and Aeneas plan to be married, which will strengthen the monarchy of Carthage. An evil sorceress is plotting to destroy Carthage and Queen Dido. Using disguises and different tactics, the Sorceress tricks Aeneas and forces him to abandon Dido. This betrayal is so devastating to Dido that it kills her. This is the point that we hear her famous aria, "When I Am Laid in Earth." In Mark's production, the roles of Dido and the Sorceress are danced by the same person, so they're also sung by one person. This offers a really interesting dichotomy. For me, this special twist intensifies the drama and makes the show really fun to sing.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career thus far?

Oh, there have been many career highlights, each one special for a different reason. Performing a favorite role or piece is always so fulfilling, and working with respected conductors, directors, and other musicians is incredibly rewarding. Some of the real highlights have been performances in distant countries - places I never imagined I'd get to visit, let alone perform. Two of the most remarkable countries have been Russia and South Africa. Experiencing the culture of another country as a singer on tour is very special. People are warm and welcoming. 

What is it like working with Mark Morris and his company?

I learn something new every time I work with Mark. He's an exceptional musician. Mark conducts our performances of Dido and Aeneas, and as a dancer, he understands musical shape and gesture and communicates from the podium in a unique and meaningful way. I gain so much from watching the gorgeous dancers, as well. I can't see them during performances, but in rehearsal, I love to watch them physically express the text and music. It's obvious that they're listening and responding to the singers in the moment, and no two performances are ever the same. Watching the dancers inspires me to experiment and offer the broadest possible range of vocal colors. As a company, MMDG is incredibly professional and easy to work with. Everyone does their job well and takes pride in it, from the large administrative team to the rehearsal and travel coordinators. It's a huge operation. The company is a family, and it's a family I feel blessed to be a part of.

Do you have a piece that is your favorite to perform?

There are so many - Dido and Aeneas is one of them! I also love singing Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. To be a soloist, standing at the edge of the stage, surrounded by Mahler's transcendent orchestral and choral writing is an experience like no other. 

What is your go-to karaoke song?

I usually manage to embarrass myself with karaoke. That's a time I'm better off in the audience than on stage.  But with a little liquid courage, I might get up and belt out some Tina Turner, “What's Love Got To Do With It.”

If you were to go to your iTunes or Spotify, which songs would be in your recently played list?

My playlists alternate between music I'm studying for performance, and music to play while jogging: Mozart - Beyonce - Berlioz - Timberlake - and so on. It's a pretty wild mix.

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