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Nashville Scene Spin Control

Provacative choreographer Mark Morris

By Maureen Needham

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  What's an audience to do with a choreographer who carefully cultivates a public image as the enfant terrible, the iconoclast who goes out of his way to shock for the sheer pleasure of shock itself? Throughout his career, Mark Morris has managed to persuade critic after critic to purvey this self-serving image, so that his bad-boyism is part of his marketable persona. However, times do change. Today he is 43 years old and no longer a boy. Once he won the so-called MacArthur "genius" award, Morris was invited to join the elite choreographic establishment, and now he is pursued by critics who demand to know what new stunt he is going to pull off next. Unfortunately for him, what was shocking yesterday becomes old-hat tomorrow.

Morris earned his rep early on by choreographing porno ballets such as "Striptease," before moving on to "One Charming Night," a rape fantasy that many termed outrageous. Any one of his ballets might include the odd juxtaposition of an aggressive black power salute, a ballerina doing a bump and grind on point, and a lyrical pas de deux for older man and adolescent boy. His dances are beautifully crafted to fit the music but otherwise unpredictable.

Perhaps Morris' best known piece is The Hard Nut, a comical op-art version of The Nutcracker turned upside down. It was wildly popular when it premiered some 10 years ago, and has been replayed on television each holiday season for the past few years. The piece owes some of its fame to the fact that dance fans in America are sick to death of the mother of all Christmas ballets. His version is wildly outrageous and invariably brings appreciative smiles to the faces of those who recall its funky conceits, such as replacing the Snow Queen with a Rat Queen or dressing the male dancers in bell-bottom jumpsuits rather than frock coats.

But that is not the whole of it. Morris extracts the sentimental and the saccharine but still manages to be exquisitely musical. For example, one of the loveliest dances in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is the "Dance of the Snow Flakes." In Marius Petipa's original choreography for the imperial Russian ballet, a large corps de ballet leaps about in grand jetés and crisscrosses the stage in wildly spinning pirouettes as snow swirls down from the rafters. The Hard Nut version of the Snow Flake dance has tutu-clad dancers attempting some of the very same steps, except that the performers are burly men with hairy armpits rather than waif-like ballerinas. After the initial visual shock, it is possible to set aside the gender-bending taunts, settle back, and appreciate the sweeping flow of the choreographic designs. In this case, the audience can have it all--the viewer gets to thumb his nose at the trite and true, but also is able to enjoy the formal beauty of the dancers' intricate movements.

Mark Morris represents for many the new wave in American dance. His dance is a blend of many different styles. At one moment, he is all ballet business; at yet another, he breaks into a circle of dancers holding hands and kicking in tandem, a formation straight out of Eastern European line-dancing. These stylistic contrasts are no surprise, considering his background. He began his career as a folk dancer with the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble, surely an idiosyncratic way to break into the dance world. He later performed with several avant-garde modern dance companies, appearing with the lyrical Lar Lubovitch as well as with the queen of musical minimalism, Laura Dean.

In 1980, Morris formed his own company, and his creativity found an avenue. He has choreographed over 90 pieces since then, and his work is marked by its musicality and originality. His works have been commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre.

In 1988, he was invited to direct dance for the highly prestigious ThéČtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, replacing the fabled Maurice Béjart. His three-year tenure was not a happy one, even though he produced a number of full-length works acknowledged as landmarks for dance. Part of Morris' bad-boy act there included rude and boorish behavior, meaning public belches or farts combined with a gutter vocabulary aimed directly at the rich and aristocratic patrons. This did not sit well with the Bruxelloises, and soon enough he was out of a job.

However, public controversy only served to propel him higher in the eyes of the avant-garde community. Honors followed: the MacArthur grant, commissions from the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and the Edinburgh International Festival, and so forth. He gained in critical esteem for his collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, a dance set to one of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello, and he won the Lawrence Olivier choreographic award for the opera Dido and Aeneas. His only spectacular failure occurred recently when he took over the directorship of Paul Simon's Broadway show Capeman. Morris did not bow gracefully to failure and instead blamed the New York critics for the show's early demise.

Is it time for Mark Morris to grow up? Surely he no longer needs to shock the bourgeois audience with cheap-shot vocabulary or flamboyant mannerisms. That's been done before by masters who, frankly, are far more sophisticated than he. Perhaps he does not give himself enough credit; his work is worth more than its simple shock value, because his choreography can be good enough to stand on its own, especially when he edits himself carefully. Morris has already had a fairly prolific career. At this stage, though, there are still some who feel he needs to demonstrate that he is something more than a clever public-relations creation.

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