A dancer’s nightmare

  • Marjorie Morgan performs “Eating Alphabets” prior to the injury that ended her dance career. Contributed photo/Whitney C. Robbins

  • “The Whale House” by Marjorie Morgan. Contributed photo/Marjorie MorgaN

  • The pure joy of movement that Morgan had been missing after her injury can be seen straight-up in her large painting, “Playing.” Contributed photo/Marjorie Morgan

For The Recorder
Published: 9/29/2017 2:45:22 PM

What is a dancer’s worst nightmare?

Marjorie Morgan, Colrain dancer and choreographer turned painter, knows firsthand, because six years ago she inadvertently personified it. During a performance in Santa Fe, N.M., Morgan tore her iliotibial band, more commonly known just as IT band, a thick band of fibrous tissue that runs down the outside of the leg from the pelvis to the knee. One wrong movement in a sequence of steps resulted in an injury so grave, Morgan was unable to return to dance.

“A dancer friend actually said to me after the injury, ‘You are my worst nightmare,’” Morgan says.

Morgan said she could hear the injury when it happened and knew something serious was wrong. Even so, she continued dancing, finished the performance and even went out with friends afterwards. Adrenaline kept her going that night, Morgan supposes.

Despite her knowledge of anatomy — both as a dancer and a teacher — none of her doctors would believe her when she told them she thought she had ripped her IT band.

“It took about four months to diagnose,” Morgan says. “And after lots of people saying, ‘Oh, that’s impossible, that never would have happened,’ that was the diagnosis.”

‘It was my identity’

Morgan laughs and shakes her head, shifting on the couch in her Chapman Street studio in Greenfield, where she has arranged herself so she can have her legs up.

The ending of Morgan’s 27-year-long career in dance, theater and choreography was a huge loss. Morgan’s work was well-respected among other choreographers and dancers and was acclaimed by critics. She had taught dance and choreography for 15 years at the Boston Conservatory, and held guest teaching appointments at Harvard University, Emerson College and other schools. She’d received the Louis Sudler Award and a Tanne Foundation Award, both given for outstanding achievements in the arts.

“It was my identity: I was a dancer,” Morgan says. “And suddenly, I was on the couch.”

Morgan says that things got worse before they got better.

“I had bones coming out of joints spontaneously. My whole system was in such a state of crisis that it just kind of fell apart.”

A course in mindfulness training geared for people in chronic pain helped her to begin healing. And while she was recovering, she began to paint, something she’d taken up a few years before.

“I loved it,” Morgan says of painting. “I took it very seriously but all my friends looked at it as a hobby.”

She smiles as she recalls her friends’ humored patience with her painting, at first. “They were like, ‘Oh that’s fun, Marjorie. Good for you.’

“So I’d been doing it anyway. It wasn’t even as if I thought I couldn’t dance, because right away, I was absolutely determined to continue dancing. … It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to switch to painting.’ I really had a lot of time at home, I was in pain, I was in a reclining position or lying flat on my back, and I just needed something to do, and painting I had loved.”

Morgan started doing small paintings, and without thinking of it, started painting people, which she had not done prior to her injury.

“I didn’t even notice that switch until years and years later,” she says, “when I stood back and realized that I only started painting the figure after I couldn’t dance any more.”

In a written artist statement, Morgan expresses it this way: “I withdrew from the dance community. And I painted. Unconsciously, I left my landscapes and still lifes behind and began painting the figure. My eyes and heart must have been hungry for images of moving bodies.”

Joy of movement

As we look around the studio at various works, Morgan reflects, “I don’t know if I’m lucky — I don’t know why I was able to paint so quickly. I really didn’t have much training at all. I had one teacher show me a few things to do, and then I just kind of started painting.”

She reminds me, “Dance is a visual art. It’s very visual.”

We talk about how dancers make shapes in space, and how their movement creates changing compositions on the stage.

“So, it is visual training, though I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Morgan says.

As a choreographer, Morgan was always interested in, “How things fit together, how you could pull them apart. And that applies to painting directly, too.”

Morgan found herself applying what she’d previously thought of as elements of choreography in her visual compositions. She lists symmetry and asymmetry, unison and canon, level change, speed and rhythm as components of choreography that began to impact her two-dimensional work.

The pure joy of movement that Morgan had been missing can be seen straight-up in her large painting, “Playing,” that shows a young girl in tank top and cut-offs, running toward the viewer. One of her abstract paintings, “The Whale House,” looks as if could be a diagram for a dance, its lines tracing movement around the blockier spaces of what could be a room. And Morgan has made mono-prints using old choreography notes as the background paper.

Changes ahead

Recently, Morgan was faced with another medical challenge when she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. She had surgery in August and is recuperating while doctors are deciding on her next treatment steps.

In the studio, the day we met prior to her surgery, Morgan talked frankly about the changes she knows lie ahead. She’ll be tired. She’ll need to rest. But she hopes to keep painting. Maybe she and her wife, fellow artist Whitney C. Robbins, will collaborate on some works as they have before, she says, passing small paintings back and forth for the other to alter. They call these collaborative works “Woolly Mammoth Works,” after the name of their studio: Woolly Mammoth Studio.

It’s clear Morgan plans to bring the same conscious mindfulness to her recovery that she did before. And painting, from Morgan’s perspective, is inextricably linked to that mindfulness.

“When I got back on my feet and was painting, I thought, ‘I want to find some kind of mindfulness practice to do with painting.’ And the more I investigated it, the more I realized that painting is a mindfulness practice, it doesn’t need a separate structure. It really is all about being in the moment, over and over and over again. And you get distracted, and you come back. And you get distracted, and you come back.”

Morgan smiles. She’ll be back.

See “Ascent, Paintings and Prints by Marjorie Morgan” at The Oxbow Gallery, 275 Pleasant St., Northampton through Sunday, Oct. 1. Gallery hours are Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Call 413-586-6300 for more information.

See more of Marjorie Morgan’s work at: marjoriemorgan.net. Contact her at marjoriemorgannet@gmail.com.

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