Mark Morris Dance Group's "The Look of Love" - company director & Berkeley native Sam Black returns to his roots

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023
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The Mark Morris Dance Group performing 'The Look of Love' <br>(photo: Skye Schmidt)
The Mark Morris Dance Group performing 'The Look of Love'
(photo: Skye Schmidt)

This month, Cal Performances welcomes back longtime artistic partner, Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), for the Bay Area premiere of Morris' latest creation, "The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach." Having performed at Zellerbach Hall annually for more than 30 years, Berkeley has become the New York-based company's home away from home.

Among MMDG's loyal Bay Area fan base, there is one Berkeley native who has come to know and love the company perhaps more than anyone. Sam Black grew up ten minutes from Zellerbach and attended performances of MMDG as a child. Black, who is gay, ultimately ended up dancing with the company for 14 years and now serves as the Company Director.

Mark Morris Dance Group's Company Director Sam Black  

In a recent conversation with the Bay Area Reporter, Black said, "Growing up in Berkeley, I got to see Mark Morris and Alvin Ailey every year. I saw shows at Berkeley Rep and Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito. I remember seeing 'Phantom of the Opera' in the city when I was maybe 10 years old; when the chandelier dropped, I thought it was real. It was terrifying and fabulous! The arts were a huge part of my life growing up."

Since his early childhood, Black has gravitated towards the spotlight. "I loved being a ham," he said with a chuckle. "I was always the 'emcee' at family dinner parties, doing comedy, singing and dancing." His parents enrolled him in classes at Katie's Dance Studio in El Cerrito, where he trained in jazz and tap dance through high school.

Black inherently understood how fortunate he was to have his family's support, as well as the advantages of growing up in progressive Berkeley.

"My parents were so supportive of everything I did," he said. "But I played baseball for a couple of years too, mostly to appease my dad. I was sort of self-conscious about telling people I was a dancer. I was aware that it wasn't something most boys did, but I was never bullied for it."

Sam Black performing at Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in 2014. (photo: Jamie Kraus)  

Backstage pass
As a teenager, Black also got a firsthand taste of the life of a professional dancer.

"When I was in high school, through a family friend, I knew the hair and makeup supervisor for Mark Morris. Each year when they came to Berkeley, I got to go backstage, sit by her and be her assistant, and I got to take class with the company. I was so nervous, being around all of these adults who I had watched for years. Mark would teach class, and he wouldn't edit himself just because there was a 14-year-old there. That in and of itself was an education! I remember trying to be a wallflower and just take it all in. I knew this was something I couldn't take for granted."

Black said that "on a fluke" he learned about the North Carolina School of the Arts and decided to spend the summer there before his senior year.

"It was a very classical and contemporary training experience, and it was also the year that the movie 'Center Stage' came out. It sounds trite, but that movie was so validating. It showed me that dancing could be a real profession. I remember thinking, 'Wow, I could get paid to do this.' So I came back to Berkeley for my senior year knowing that I wanted to be a dancer, and that I needed to catch up on ballet and modern."

After high school, Black completed his B.F.A. in dance at SUNY-Purchase, during which time he had the opportunity to understudy a role for MMDG and ended up performing with the company.

"It was really serendipitous," he said. "After I graduated and the company needed someone, they already knew me and asked me to join. I was so lucky."

Black danced with MMDG from 2005-2019, performing and originating numerous roles in Morris' repertoire. Upon his retirement, Morris appointed him to be Rehearsal Director, and in 2021 he was promoted to the position of Company Director.

When asked about the rewards and challenges of working with one of the icons of the dance world, Black said, "Mark talks a lot about his work embodying the full range of human emotions, and he operates in that full spectrum of feelings and emotions. He can be incredibly dry, sarcastic, and witty one second, then he'll turn around and say something so beautiful and profound."

Now that Black is working even closer with Morris as a member of his artistic team, he said he is more cognizant of the demands a MMDG dancer must meet.

"During rehearsals, we might stop and talk and giggle for an hour. There is truly no better storyteller than Mark," he said with a broad laugh. "But then 'story time' will be over, and he'll turn around and say, 'All right, let's go. 5-6-7-8!' You have to be ready for that. Those moments with Mark are crucial to the job and to building community in the company. But you can't be so swept up that you forget that you're there to work. That can be tricky, especially if you're new."

What the World Needs Now
This past October, MMDG premiered Morris' latest work, "The Look of Love," set to the music of Burt Bacharach, and featuring costumes by Morris' longtime collaborator, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Black is confident that Bay Area audiences are going to love it.

"Working behind the scenes," he said, "it's always such a mystery as dances come together. Being in the room with an audience seeing it for the first time, you really have no idea what's going to happen. But it's been getting incredible reviews and great audience responses every time. These songs are so well known, even if you think you don't know them. Like all of Mark's work, it has the full range of emotions. This is going to sound so cheesy, but I really believe what the world needs now is love, and that song opens the show. It's so pure, earnest and just joyous. People are responding to the sheer beauty of the piece."

Mark Morris Dance Group's 'The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach,' February 17-19, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. $36-$150.

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