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This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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Nicole Plett on Mark Morris
I think ethnic dances are much more interesting in
general than concert dances," choreographer Mark Morris has said.
"The first thing people did, maybe, after they stopped killing
each other with rocks, was hold hands to dance together."
Morris, one of the luminaries of contemporary American dance, has
been a regular visitor to the Princeton area. Last seen at McCarter
in October, 1998, the Mark Morris Dance Group returns with a performance
at New Brunswick’s State Theater, on Friday, May 21, at 8 p.m. Featured
on the program are four works by Morris, all of significant interest
to area dancewatchers. They include "Canonic 3/4 Studies,"
"Dancing Honeymoon," and "Grand Duo" (to the music
of Lou Harrison). But for those familiar with the company, the presence
on the program of the 1994 work, "The Office," will come as
a shock. Inspired by Balkan dance, and choreographed to music by Dvorak,
this work premiered during the period of genocide in Bosnia. In a
tragic and unplanned coincidence, the work now takes the stage again
during the war in Kosovo.
"The Office" is the important and consumately musical 1994
work commissioned from Morris by Zivili, a Balkan dance and music
troupe, based in Columbus, Ohio. Designed for the special skills of
that folk ensemble, it was premiered by Zivili, and then entered the
repertory of the Mark Morris Dance Group. It is set to Dvorak’s "Five
Bagatelles," but takes place in a sterile waiting room where a
group of displaced persons are gathered. As each of the five sections
of the dance progresses, the number of dancers gradually diminishes;
one by one, an anonymous, officious-looking woman carrying a clipboard
escorts each one out.
"If you want to read the action as a metaphor for the terrible
events in Bosnia or, more widely, for any vicious, morally inexplicable
extermination of a race, Morris offers you every opportunity to do
so," wrote critic Tobi Tobias five years ago. Incredibly, the
continuing genocide in the former Yugoslavia makes the dance no less
searing today than it was during the war in Bosnia. While "The
Office" makes reference to Slavic folk dances, there is no celebration
of community here — rather the suggestion of precious lives being
robbed of their future.
Over the past decade Morris, now 42, has re-energized the American
dance scene with his brilliant blend of traditional and iconoclastic
modern dance works. His "L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato,"
a full-evening work set to Handel’s pastoral ode after poems by John
Milton, is widely considered Morris’ masterwork and a 20th-century
treasure. It was reprised this month with orchestra and full chorus
at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Last summer’s four-performance
engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House was a total
sellout, as was the company’s fall appearance at McCarter.
Morris is also widely recognized as the most musical choreographer
working today, and the heir to George Balanchine’s interpretive tradition.
"In a way, I’m more interested in music than I am in dancing,
which is why I work with music the way I do. I consider myself a musician.
It’s just that I don’t play anything," he has told U.S. 1.
Ever the witty and irreverent artist and thinker, Morris’ post-performance
chats at McCarter are a bonus to the choreographer’s annual Princeton
appearances. When asked by an audience member at the most recent performance
why he had picked Princeton alumnus John Harbison as the composer
for the commission "Medium," he replied, "because Brooke
Shields wasn’t available." Asked about his music education, he
said he had received his musical training at "l’ecole de hard
Morris’ choreography will also be featured at McCarter
Theater’s summer performances of the White Oak Dance Project, co-founded
in 1990 by Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the beginning, White
Oak provided a showcase for works by Morris, and it now features repertory
by Morris, Lubovitch, Tharp, and others. White Oak makes its regional
debut at McCarter from July 28 through August 1, in an unprecedented
five-performance stand featuring Baryshnikov and a company of five
in works by Morris, Trisha Brown, and Tamasaburo Bando. Call 609-683-8000
In 1993, Morris was the subject of a celebratory biography by Joan
Acocella, a book that made an unusual — for a dance biography
— passage into paperback.
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Morris is the extraordinary
son of a fairly ordinary, close-knit family with a penchant for music
and home-made theatricals. At the age of eight, Mark’s mother took
him to see Jose Greco’s Spanish dance troupe and he fell in love with
what he saw. He began to study Spanish dance with Verla Flowers, his
first and most important dance teacher.
At 13, Morris joined the Koleda Folk Ensemble, a Seattle touring troupe
that specialized in Balkan dance and music. This, and his early passion
for flamenco, provided vital lessons in musicality, rhythmic complexity,
and the experience of dance as a joyous, earthy art form. The complex
rhythmic structures of these two extraordinary traditions influenced
Morris’s musical thinking in vital ways. Yet wedded to this musical
complexity is the most basic recognition of dance as "a bunch
of regular people trying to do something together."
The Mark Morris Dance Group was formed in 1980 and, like the Koleda
Folk Ensemble, it developed a cohesive, family atmosphere that has
endured for almost two decades. If you want an insight into the egalitarian
nature of his troupe, note the identical musculature of the dancers,
both male and female.
The end is in sight for the company’s gypsy days, however. Seeking
a permanent home with studios and office under one roof, the company
has capitalized on its strong relationship with the Brooklyn community
— and some 12 performing seasons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
— to find an ideal spot for its facility. Renovation is already
under way for the multi-purpose facility designed by Frederick Bland,
and the company is scheduled to move into its new home in June 2000.
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. America’s modern dance sensation
on tour. Program features "Canonic 3/4 Studies," "Dancing
Honeymoon," "The Office," and "Grand Duo." $20
to $38. Friday, May 21, 8 p.m.
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