Big, Beefy Mark Morris Isn't Your Typical Genius Dancer.
By Margaret Regan
OCTOBER 5, 1998: CHOREOGRAPHER MARK MORRIS found himself a hop, skip north of a hurricane last week. "It's very windy and strange and weird," he reported by telephone from northern Florida, where the edges of Hurricane Georges were whipping the fronds off the palms. Nevertheless, he was confident there would be no evacuation. The Mark Morris Dance Group was ready to perform, and when Morris is ready to dance, not even a hurricane would dare to dissent.
The troupe has taken the dance world by, well, storm. Morris, a 42-year-old native of Seattle, is routinely called not only "the most important choreographer of his generation," but "one of the foremost artists in the United States." He's created more than 90 dances for his own company, danced with such luminaries as Lar Lubovitch and Eliot Feld, founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He even did a three-year stint in Brussels as director of dance for the Belgian national opera house.
This MacArthur genius is not your typical lean dancer, either. Big and beefy, he has a cascade of black curls that make him look like he's stepped out of a painting from the Baroque, a period whose music, incidentally, he adores. But his elaborate, disorderly appearance, and enfant terrible rep, transmute into gloriously eclectic dance on stage.
Brought up on flamenco and Japanese dance and Balkan folk and ballet and modern, Morris founded his company as a youngster of 24 in New York City. Since then his dancers have regularly transfixed audiences with a joyful style of dance that seamlessly mixes the classical discipline of a Balanchine with the frenetic joviality of folk. "Grand Duo," one of the four works on next week's program, has left at least one New York audience "howl(ing) with joy," as critic Joan Acocella wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Danced by a wild corps of 14, critics have called it a tribal celebration.
"It looks ancient-ish," Morris agreed. "It's very dancey and very strenuous. It's set to a thrilling score by a composer I love, Lou Harrison."
The music is very much to the point. The Harrison score is played live on stage by a violinist and pianist, the duo of the title. Morris insists on live music at every concert, for every piece, a rarity in a dance world where performers too often move to canned music. He considers himself a musician, who just happens not to be an "instrumentalist."
"I always wanted to use live music," he said. "It's very important to me. Some funds (grants) come directly for live music. It's worth it. It's expensive and difficult, of course. But it's a real show, with all live performers and a live audience."
Early-music lovers have been known to come to his concerts more for the music than the dance. His beloved Baroque music, originally composed for the stately court dances of Europe, requires singers to join the musicians. "I Don't Want to Love," a 1996 work for seven dancers that's also on the Centennial Hall program, is set to "some small-scale madrigals by Monteverdi, all concerned with aspects of love." The Artek Singers--two tenors, a bass and a soprano --sing the songs in Italian, and an early-instrument ensemble called 458 Strings plays on the guitar, harpsichord and theorbo.
"Medium," a brand-new work for six dancers, is played by violin, viola, cello and piano. The composer is John Harbison, but the music was inspired by Schubert.
"It's based on material Schubert wrote. John took fragments and re-imagined them."
Morris himself dances a solo in "Three Preludes," to Gershwin music played by pianist Ethan Iverson.
"It's from the early '90s. I haven't done it for a while. I have a new pianist and a new artistic director, and I wanted to do it again with them."
Many of his dancers have been with the troupe at least 10 years, and some go all the way back to its beginnings in 1980. Morris doesn't much concern himself with his dancers growing older, or himself, for that matter. He performs in every single concert.
"I'm not interested in a youth fixation," he said with a trace of irritation. "Everyone gets older. If you've been dancing with me 10 years, that means you're gonna be 10 years older. That should mean that you're a better artist."
Master of high and low, Morris disdains no sources (a Morris Nutcracker, called The Hard Nut, was set in the tacky 1960s) and he continues to generate new dances at an extraordinary rate. Right now, he said, he has works planned well into the next century.
"I hope I do different kinds of work every time I do work. That's my job! I create dances."
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