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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

for information.

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.

Mark Morris Dance Group, State Theater, 15 Livingston

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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