Angel-headed hipster of dance

Former bad boy Mark Morris is now an American master

Mark Morris

Mark Morris

The Mark Morris Dance Group is coming to Chico this weekend, and the timing couldn’t be better—for several reasons.

For one, the group is riding a veritable tidal wave of good publicity, including glowing feature stories in recent issues of Time magazine and The New Yorker. Morris is “the most prodigiously gifted choreographer of the post-Balanchine era,” gushes the Time writer, Terry Teachout. “Morris is the most exciting modern-dance choreographer in the country,” says The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella.

The group is also in the midst of celebrating its 20th-anniversary season, for which Morris created a package of five different programs of dances old and new that the group staged during a three-week period in March at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Now the group has taken some of those dances on tour, and when it returns to New York City in late May, it will end its two decades without a permanent home and take up residence, for the first time, in its own facility, a glistening new $6.2 million, five-story dance center in Brooklyn.

Mark Morris and his dancers are on a roll, and Chicoans are fortunate indeed that Laxson Auditorium is one of the stops on what has to be an exhilarating tour. The group will perform four dances, to live musical accompaniment, on Sunday, April 7, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Mark Morris was known as the Bad Boy of Modern Dance. He was, as Acocella states, “the most controversial choreographer of the 1980s.” He was smart-alecky and iconoclastic, his hair was a tousled mop, and he was all over the map in his choice of dance styles and music, using everything from Bach to Balinese gamelan music. But the one thing nobody ever accused him of being was stale or derivative.

Now, at age 44, he’s almost universally recognized to be an American master. He’s composed over 100 dances, most for his own group and several for others, including the San Francisco Ballet. In February that group premiered his A Garden, set to Richard Strauss’ “Tanzsuite,” an orchestral adaptation of harpsichord pieces by François Couperin, the court musician to Louis XIV. And one of Morris’ pieces, a full-evening extravaganza for 24 dancers, four singers, orchestra and chorus entitled L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed el Moderato, is the subject of a new coffee-table anthology of essays and interviews. As Teachout writes, “his once controversial work has become the gold standard of creativity for a new generation of dancers, choreographers and critics.”

Morris grew up in Seattle and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a dancer, following his sister to ballet school when he was 7. Even then, he was promiscuous about styles, soaking up whatever dance form came his way. He learned a Russian dance, he says, so he could perform with a local balalaika orchestra. He picked up Japanese dancing at nearby Bon Odori festivals. When he was 11, he appeared as an extra with the Bolshoi Ballet and, that summer, attended José Greco’s flamenco school in Indiana. Two years later, he joined the Koleda Folk Ensemble, a Balkan folkdance company. By this time he was creating his own first dances.

In 1976, at the age of 20, he moved to New York, and four years later he started his own company. In the beginning, a press release states, the group was little more than a group of friends performing a few weekends a year and then going back to waiting tables. But its fame spread, in part because of Morris’ personality. “He was a vivid character,” the release says, “the kind of person journalists like to write about. He took curtain calls in Bermudas and flip-flops. He was open about his homosexuality. He cackled, he arched his eyebrows, he smoked clove cigarettes. Yet he was also a big butch guy who lumbered about and waved a beer bottle as he talked.”

The company grew. Some of Morris’ dancers have been with him since the beginning, and even the newer ones have been with him for eight or 10 years. “My company’s very unusual,” Morris says. “Every single dancer knows what everyone else is doing, so they can cover for each other. Besides, we’re friends. … I can choreograph my pieces with specific dancers in mind; they a completely crucial part of what I do. This has its drawbacks, I guess. I don’t give my work to other companies, and I could probably make millions if I did. Still, who else would understand the weird notes I give: ‘You’re not concentrating, you’re lying,’ or, ‘Hey, look, you’re dancing too loudly‘?”

Morris’ group recently completed two film projects, an Emmy Award-winning collaboration with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach suite to accompany Morris’ Falling Down Stairs and a film version of Morris’ full-length Dido and Aeneas. In 1997 the group won England’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for “Best New Dance Production” for its performance of L’Allegro.

In Chico, the Mark Morris Dance Group will perform four repertory works. The first, Sang-Froid, is set to nine turbulent and seductive pieces by Chopin and features five female and four male dancers. The second number, Silhouettes, is a point-counterpoint duet set to composer Richard Cumming’s jazz-tinted piano music.

According to the press release, the third work, The Office, “is a 1994 piece that, like many of Morris’ works, uses the vocabulary of folk dance to create a lyrical group piece. Set to Antonin Dvorak’s haunting tone poems, the piece has an ominous undertone, since a ‘boss’ keeps coming in and taking away the dancer/officer workers one by one.”

The final piece, called The Grand Duo, is a major work featuring a large contingent of dancers and set to the throbbing, exciting music of contemporary composer Lou Harrison. It’s described as “a tribal celebration danced around a metaphorical campfire. Dancers throw their fists in the air, pounding their feet in unison, sit cross-legged in a circle and shake their heads at the gods.”

This is Mark Morris’ way of reaching out to us, and now we in Chico have a rare opportunity to experience it. Morris rarely discusses his work, preferring to let it speak for itself, but in 1998 he gave a speech at the Midwest Arts Conference, a gathering of artists and performing arts administrators, that says much about how he perceives live performance.

Morris talked about the “fragile and important thing that we do … that important, difficult, primitive, dangerous and non-profit thing … the fact and the mystery of live performance.”

These “twin aspects of live performance,” he continued, had fascinated and consumed him since he was little, “standing amazed as the bass drum of a parade passed by. The startling physical fact of the whomp of the drum hitting me in the stomach, in my head, was a surprise, a revelation. … And I felt like I was being told something important, something essential, which I didn’t quite understand.”

Why do we continue to make the effort to see live performances, he asked, when it’s so easy to stay at home and watch television or a video? “Because we need to,” he answered. “Because of biology. Because we are beings who crave touch. Because we are human animals who need that specific danger inherent in the fact and the mystery of live performance; the danger of truth.”

He loves the electronic media, he said, but they all are lies—"the past masquerading as the present. All are dead, electronically feigning life.”

Live performance, he went on, is “uncomfortable. … You can’t talk, have a snack, go to the bathroom, or perform any of the myriad acts that make television such a soothing, regressive experience.”

And it takes work, but the work pays off. “The effort of engagement admits you to worlds of experience that are unique, corporeal and true,” he said. “Music live is radically different from music recorded. And the difference is this: Live music is music. A recording is a simulacrum, an aide memoire, maybe a guide or learning tool. But music is in the flesh and in the moment, and it joins together those who hear it in a way that’s both ancient and inexplicable. … All art aspires to the condition of music.”

That’s why Morris resolutely refuses to use recorded music with his performances and includes a group of accompanists with each touring dance ensemble. “I get the same thrill from a Handel oratorio or a dance by Merce Cunningham,” he told the arts administrators. “Both show me the world or, more precisely, the manifold worlds within me and in which I live. Both of these artists are, as Allen Ginsburg once said, ‘angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.'”

As is, apparently, Mark Morris.