It is true that those who despise Mark Morris' dancemaking do so for the same reasons many of us find him the most innovative choreographer of his generation.
In some eyes, Morris has brought a fine-tuned and sensitive musicality formerly missing from postmodern dance, while his gender-bending style helped liberate the formulaic approach to partnering (boy lifts girl) that stultified the medium for years. To others, Morris has been making dances that fit the music in a simplistic, overrated fashion--and his bad-boy, campy antics shock the masses for shock's sake and trivialize the form.
As a fan, I think the latter group fundamentally misunderstands the intentions of the artist. Anna Kisselgoff, chief critic of The New York Times, has accused him of stepping to the music. She has also implied that his plays on gender are predictable and political in nature. But if you look at a piece like "Deck of Cards," a dance in which Morris, wearing an orange dress, waltzes longingly, you see that beneath the campy exterior--boy with curly, cascading hair wearing a dress--lies a haunting sense of loss and melancholy. The piece is choreographed to a country & western song about a woman leaving a man, and in many ways Morris evokes the man spurned as well as the woman.
Yet "most people think that piece is just a hoot," Morris said in a recent interview with Dallas Observer. In more flamboyant works, like The Hard Nut, a psychedelic '70s take on The Nutcracker, his gender-bending shows more of a sense of humor, using men--be it as snowflakes or flowers--in the corps that was traditionally the domain of women.
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Who's right? Is Morris genius or hype? You decide: go see The Mark Morris Dance Group perform for the first time in Dallas on January 27 and 28 at the McFarlin Auditorium at SMU. The Dallas debut will feature "Lucky Charms," a piece Morris called "high showbiz--it's kind of horrifying," he says. "But I won't say any more because I don't want to tell people what to think." Also on the program are two of my favorite pieces, "Going Away Party," a country romp of traditional couplings that finds Morris at sea (if I remember correctly, it ends with a remote-controlled truck), and "Three Preludes," a languid, bluesy number performed to Gershwin that shows off Morris' sensual knowledge of jazz.
Some of the critical naysayers have always disliked Morris' work. Others have moved away from him after declaring him king in the early '80s, when Morris spiced up the sleepy, heavy-handed, and self-conscious world of dance. Mark Morris entered the scene as a fey chameleon with long Botticelli hair, Valentino eyes, and a dagger tongue--a choreographer whose sensibilities were immediately compared to the lyric and playful powers of Balanchine. But by the late '80s, he was better known for being photographed by Annie Leibovitz lounging naked with his penis tucked away, cracking Buds during rehearsals, and being outspokenly gay.
His status as enfant terrible began to overshadow his work, and Morris paid a price for it. His glamorous stint as resident choreographer of the lavish, state-subsidized Theatre de la Monnaie opera house in Brussels was rife with controversy, and his contract was not renewed. (Such an opportunity is almost unheard of for an American choreographer.) He offended Belgians by calling Brussels boring, describing his predecessor Maurice Bejart's work as "shit," and flaunted his gayness in the press. (When Belgium's queen attended a performance, and the audience shouted, "Vive la reine," Morris said at the time, "I thought they meant me.")
He also got into more and more trouble for choreographing his dances to music. It may seem harmless enough to the layman, but music visualization is a no-no in modern dance, which has a long heritage of material being borne of internal, emotive, and romantic impulses. Choreographing to music, conventional wisdom goes, is the stifled province of ballet.
I have interviewed Morris twice now, the second time just recently for this piece. He has probably told every interviewer, including me, how much he hates that people write about his persona more than his work. But he cuts such an intriguing figure in the Age of Personality, none of us can seem to resist. And as for the accusation that he just makes dances to music, he shrugs off the criticism, saying "I can't worry about the people who don't like my work."
The critic who has shown the most restraint and understanding of Morris' giant career so far is Joan Acocella, free-lance critic and author of the recent biography Mark Morris. It's not an authorized biography, but Morris cooperated fully and even likes the result. "It could be shorter," he said, "but it's not one of those stupid dance books." Let it be said that Acocella is Morris' most ardent admirer, but she has a clear head and intimate knowledge of where the wunderkind is coming from. Acocella gets to the core of his work:
"There is no question that for Morris this music-based method is a metaphor for life, or for the mind's life in the world...In keeping with the old classical paradox, he found that his containment could free him. This is what happens as Morris listens to music. His understanding of the structure builds a floor and four walls around the emotion. Then the emotion is liberated, and not just into its bright center but into its dark corners: half-moods, internal beats, personal associations, fantasy. As his pianist, Linda Dowdell, has said, 'Sometimes the most personal thing he gives us is the way he hears.'"
Part of the backlash may be based on the feeling that no 38-year-old artist deserves so much attention. But as Acocella states at the end of her book, we have seen only the first stage of a brilliant career, "from angry young man to mature artist." He is old enough to have shed his skin as enfant terrible. And it has been a while since I've seen his wild candor or self-righteous (but often accurate) cattiness in print. Mark Morris has grown up before our eyes, revealing an old-fashioned penchant for telling stories to music--from Handel to calypso and polka.
The biggest misrepresentation of Morris is the idea that his dances to polkas or Balkan music represent kitsch. The adolescent Morris was not terribly fashionable or hip; he was a flamenco dancer and a Balkan dancer before he entered the more acceptable sphere of the downtown postmodern elite. He loves the country and folk traditions; he thinks the music and sense of communion is beautiful. He wants you to hear it and see it too.
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