DANCE : Still Abuzz? : Choreographer Mark Morris is returning from a 3-year residency in Europe. Can his company re-establish itself in the States?

<i> Janice Berman is the dance critic for New York Newsday</i>

Mark Morris recently wrapped up a month of making new works and rehearsing repertory at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival here with a weekend of informal, fund-raising performances for friends of the company, no reviews allowed.

Morris’ seat was reserved by four cans of Foster’s Lager placed under one of the folding chairs, and yes, he drank them. But he didn’t pop the tops while people were dancing. After all, Morris is 35. He’s given up clove cigarettes, his wardrobe seems more confined to things that go with other things than it was in years past, and one even has to wonder if he would still holler an expletive and storm out of a performance, as he did several years ago while watching Twyla Tharp’s company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

He may have mellowed somewhat, but Morris remains brazen enough to say that he doesn’t like most of the dance he sees.

“It’s not that it’s horrible or insulting,” he said. “It’s--here’s what I’m saying--it should be better, the standard should be higher. It should be entertaining, maybe. I’m pretty sure the person who choreographs believes they’re doing good, legitimate, valuable work, and that’s fine. But nothing happens that’s moving, or resonant, or rigorous enough to be valuable as art.”


Now that he has returned to the United States, critics here will have the opportunity to determine if Morris’ own company still lives up to his standards. For the three years of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s voluntary exile to Belgium, the buzz, most unusual for a dance company--let alone for a modern dance company--kept building.

In 1988, Morris, lured by the prospect of steady employment for his dancers and a climate that would encourage his own creativity, accepted an invitation to replace Maurice Bejart as resident choreographer of Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, with the Mark Morris Dance Group as resident company.

Morris had earned enough critical acclaim before his departure to keep the dance-going public fascinated. There had been an opera house production of the full-length “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato” in Seattle; a show in New York that included, as part of his “Mythologies,” a piece called “Striptease,” in which a naked Morris lay down at the edge of the stage, and other performances in New York and Boston.

There wasn’t any letup when Morris hit Brussels, and sometimes vice versa. In an interview with the Times of London, Morris trashed the Belgian capital for being “highly racist, highly sexist, highly homophobic,” adding, “there are aspects that are quite fascistic.” His work in Brussels engendered cheers and boos and headlines like “Mark Morris Go Home.”


The Greatest Dancer of Them All, Mikhail Baryshnikov, lent Morris further luster by commissioning “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” for American Ballet Theatre and by guesting with the Morris group in Brussels as just another alphabetically listed member of the troupe.

During summer, Morris and his company would ramble here to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. In June, 1990, Morris took “Dido and Aeneas” to Brooklyn, N.Y. So they were here and there, but not everywhere, and it always felt as though Morris and company had to hurry back to Brussels before the clock struck midnight.

“Everyone wanted to see us, and nobody could,” Morris said recently. “That was good for business.”

And now, at last, the company’s back in New York, its stormy tenure at the Monnaie having drawn to a close. And now, because of cutbacks in public arts funds and in private giving, there is even less money around for dance than there was before Morris left.

So the Mark Morris Dance Group’s first season since leaving the Monnaie will be--ta-da!-- at the Monnaie next month.

“We dance where people pay for us to dance. We don’t dance just because we like to,” Morris said equably.

The company will repeat last January’s “The Hard Nut,” Morris’s grown-up version of “The Nutcracker,” with its ‘60s-camp sets by Charles Burns of Raw Comics fame. The show will be taped for U.S. broadcast on PBS in 1992. Also in December, Morris--who choreographs by working from a score, an unusually musical trait--will be directing an opera, “Le Nozze de Figaro,” for the Monnaie.

The troupe will return to North America in the new year, with Morris choreographing a new piece in February for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. The Mark Morris Dance Group will play Toronto in March, New York in April and Boston in June. “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the controversial John Adams opera that Morris choreographed for his own dancers, will come to the Los Angeles Music Center in September, and the troupe is to tour the West Coast the following month.


Minutes before the showing at Jacob’s Pillow Studio Theater, a barn-like affair fragrant with knotty pine, Morris watched as Tina Fehlandt, who’s been with the company since it began in 1980, lay on the floor, stretching one leg over the other. His dancers, Morris once said, are “people who can deal with rhythm problems and brain problems and can dance to music and have lives and personalities and are smart and serious and relatively mature.”

Guillermo Resto, the villainous Aeneas in “Dido and Aeneas” (Morris played both Dido and the Sorceress), rested on his side. Keith Sabado, cast as Leon Klinghoffer in that controversial opera, warmed up. Two dancers supported each other in deep arabesques, bodies swooping down, legs kicking up.

Morris jingled the change in his pocket as the dancers stripped down to tights.

And they were off, with the Morris company’s general director, Barry Alterman, thanking everyone, including Pillow director Sam Miller, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and “Jenny, who brought us towels.”

The evening included three pieces from distinct periods in the Morris oeuvre . The earliest, made “a long time ago, in Seattle” (Morris’ hometown), was “Strict Songs,” to music by Lou Harrison.

The company also danced “Behemoth,” choreographed in Brussels and set, unusually, to no music by this most musical choreographer. When Morris was choreographing “Behemoth,” he told the audience, “every night an ice cream truck rolled by, playing ‘Whistle While You Work.’ ”

In the absence of lights for the scene changes, Morris told the audience how to create its own scene shifts: “When I say, ‘Black,’ close your eyes. When I say, ‘Light,’ open them again. Don’t get confused, or you’ll miss the whole thing.”

The dancers also performed “A Lake” (set to the Haydn Horn Concerto), which they’d just learned.


It was choreographed for the White Oak Project, a group of well-regarded older dancers drawn from modern and ballet companies, now on its fourth tour. Baryshnikov founded the group last year, and Morris filled it with repertory, which is now being supplanted with choreography by others. Morris had always intended to stop working with White Oak when his own company returned to the United States, Alterman said.

“A Lake,” Morris insisted, is not connected in any way to “Swan Lake,” no matter what dance critics say. In the second movement, one dancer lies across a circle formed by other dancers. Reviewers said that it was related to a dying shepherd, perhaps, Morris quoted, “ ‘the end of Mr. Baryshnikov’s dancing career.’ ”

“Oh, wow,” he said, recalling the reviews. “I just wanted somebody lying down, to bisect that circle. That’s all I wanted. I thought it was a good idea.”

But later, talking about his work and its relation to issues of the day, including the AIDS crisis, Morris said: “I feel a certain way, and because I feel a certain way I make up dances a certain way. It’s like Misha lying on the floor doesn’t mean he’s a dead shepherd. You can go any way you want with that. I try hard not to teach people lessons, ‘cause I don’t like that. My strength is making up dances. It’s not my business to do these sort of diatribe things, and I don’t do it well.”

And then there were several new, untitled pieces.

“I don’t know which of these is going to turn into a dance or how,” Morris said the next day. He and Alterman were sitting in Morris’ cottage as autumn leaves rustled outside. “These are basically etudes, or studies as we say in English.”

One piece is set to four calypso songs from the 1920s and ‘30s--music “I’ve been listening to for years because I love it so much,” Morris said. And, in a classic touch, he made it a ballet. “It just occurred to me that it should be done balletically, ‘cause it would be stupid if the dancers pretended to be calypso-dancing.”

There is also a circle dance that somehow manages to look as if his company has owned it for a long time.

“It could be done by any even number of people, because it’s just two parts that are danced. It could be done by 32,000 people, probably,” Morris said, and Alterman deadpanned, “We’ve got the commission for the Super Bowl in 1996.”

Economically, this is hardly the best time to be making new work or to re-establish a presence in the U.S. dance community. Morris deferred all questions about finances to his “ace management team,” who insulate him from worrying about money.

Karen Hershey, the troupe’s development director, said the company began fund-raising last year in preparation for its return to the States. She wrote 15 grant applications, she said, and expects to apply for many more in the coming year. The company derives half its budget from grants.

“In three years, the budget went from being $500,000 and 11 dancers to almost $2 million” for 16 dancers, she said. “We’re going to try to keep it at $2 million for the next four years to keep it comfortable, manageable, and get a good flow going.” Even so, Hershey said, there will probably be a cash-flow problem at the end of March because of the expense of self-producing the New York season.

(Some of the money from Morris’ “genius grant,” a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship of $225,000 over five years, goes to “help lubricate my company’s runnings,” Morris said.)

In relative terms, Morris acknowledged, he has become famous: “Not like a basketball player, but I get free tickets. And more people see what I do because they’ve heard of me.”

“This White Oak thing, I’m not kidding myself that people are just going to see my work--please! A lot of people don’t know that choreographers make things up and then dancers do it. They think ’10 Suggestions’ is just Misha fooling around to music.

“And that’s fine,” Morris added. “It means it’s successful. It means more people may be interested. I don’t care if people become interested in modern dance. I just care if they become interested in my work, because I like my work better than I like modern dance.”