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Gérard Mortier, left, director of Madrid’s Teatro Real, gets choreographer Mark Morris to explain how he works.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Wednesday evening: A too-sparse crowd – less than 100 people – drifts into Cinema 3 at TIFF to hear a conversation between American choreographer Mark Morris (here with one of his landmark works, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato) and Gerard Mortier (director of the Madrid opera, Teatro Real.) Too sparse because when Mortier finally finishes his seven-minute-long opening question, Morris takes over and thereafter says nothing that is not candid, interesting, revealing, funny and insightful.

Mortier is dressed like a mortician in a trim dark suit and tie. Morris is dressed in a light blue polo shirt, wrinkled khaki shorts, pink socks and black sandals. But while their wardrobe selections are out of sync, the pairing of a Mr. Opera and a Mr. Dance is not as incompatible as it might appear.

It was Mortier, in a previous incarnation as director of the Brussels opera, La Monnaie, who hired a younger Morris to replace his then outgoing director of dance, Maurice Bejart. And it was in Brussels in the late-1980s and early-1990s that Morris created several of his most famous dances, including L'Allegro, The Hard Nut, and Dido and Aeneas. That work, he later confesses, made it easier to re-establish himself in the United States.

Morris's work always begins with the music. "What a lot of people do is make up a dance," he explains. "What I do, in the old-fashioned sense, is go from a piece of music that I love and imagine that I won't tire of very soon, analyze the score, think about it, and make up a dance with my company." He adds that he'd rather go to see opera than see dance, "because if I'm super familiar with someone's dance work and if I don't like it, I don't need to go back. And I won't go see a three-hour ballet if it only has 10 minutes of good dancing. But I go to the Met [New York's Metropolitan Opera] a lot."

Morris talks about his Brooklyn-based company of dancers, 10 men and 10 women. "I've been accused of having a company that looks like people, and that's a crime in some circles, apparently, as though they should be weimaraner," he says. "I guess all dancers are supposed to be a particular height, which is unvarying, a particular race, which isn't very colourful, and a particular sex, which is female. I find that a little limiting. My company looks like the people who got off the bus – the dance bus – and they can dance fabulously. It's a coveted job. The total number of permanent dancers in the United States is probably a few hundred. The last audition I held – for two women positions – 600 people came. And a lot of them were quite good."

Mortier salutes Morris as a Falstaffian character whose work is infused with humour. "You're not like some choreographers who are always so depressed, and the world falls heavy on their shoulders," Mortier says.

In response, Morris says he's been friends for years with former National Ballet of Canada artistic director James Kudelka, "and I love him, but he always made me feel like the most optimistic person in the world. Nobody gets bluer than Mr. Kudelka."

Much of his own choreography, he says, is made up first in his head. "Any choreographer can easily make up something and get rid of it. I can make up something where 300 people don't run into each other … It's like a cannon shooting … bang, bang, bang. But that's not choreography. That's like masturbating, only it takes more time. My ideas happen quicker and more brutally. I get rid of things that don't work."

Yet, after more than 30 years near the top of modern American dance, Morris says he often feels like a charlatan. "I have anxiety and trepidation every time I go into the studio after a day off. It's like, 'I'm completely bullshitting all of this. Please, dancers, forgive me.' But I get over it soon."

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