Every so often, Mark Morris's dancers pass a tranquil afternoon in their new Brooklyn studio. This could not be described as one of them. • "Stop, stop, stop!" Morris pops out of his seat and runs his hand through his hair. His company, gorgeous and panting, looks over at him expectantly. They're used to this by now: the brusqueness, the impatience, the periodic flare-ups that could spook a Buddha. To work with Morris, one must never confuse frustration with anger. His circuits work much faster than most. "Figure it out," he says. "Everyone has to do this step in the same size; otherwise, it doesn't fit."
Morris is troubleshooting a ten-second stretch in which the dancers are, in fact, shooting -- or pointing imaginary guns, at any rate, and then blowing smoke off them -- in one of the more literal sequences from Resurrection, set to Richard Rodgers's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." The piece will be filmed for television, which means Morris has to choreograph it with an eye toward close-ups, inserts, and cutaways.
"We're walking through this in bits -- " Morris stops abruptly and glares at a lanky redhead who's conferring with a colleague. "Don't talk through me, please." The dancer starts to explain, then reconsiders. "We're walking through this bit by bit," Morris resumes, "because that's how I want to shoot it. This piece is going to shift gears a lot." He looks back at the redhead. "Now you may speak."
"I don't need to anymore."
Morris rolls his eyes and starts to wander back to his chair. The redhead looks helplessly at two of his fellow dancers and mouths something.
Morris whips back around. "Hello? I can see you in the mirror."
The dancers start again, and for several beautiful minutes, Morris seems pleased. He whistles along to the score, calls out eccentric direction ("I don't want creeping"), and even swans about himself, indulging every now and then in a music-box pirouette. Then the music shifts and he starts to frown. The ramp-up to the ending is all wrong. He stops the company once more.
"Here's what I want this to be . . . " Morris looks at the score, starts counting on his fingers, and for a brief moment gets lost in his own head. "Think of it all in triplets so it's lazier rhythmically," he finally says. "And I want it to be broken-looking. If I were referring to an artist I hate, it'd be Keith Haring."
The dancers try again, finally nail it, and Morris spends the rest of the rehearsal trying to guide his company into a coherent finale. It takes some doing -- for a while, the studio feels like a busy airport -- but the shapes and lines eventually shake into place. The music stops. The company freezes. The two lead dancers have landed, with perfect panache, on their colleagues' backs.
"You know what that's called?" Morris asks, looking gloatingly over at me.
I tell him I don't.
He puts his hands on his hips, smiles luminously, and gives his rump a triumphant shake.
Mark Morris, the uppity squirt who got himself banned from the American Dance Festival eighteen years ago for crying "No more rape!" during a piece created by Twyla Tharp, is now 46 years old. He performs in fewer dances these days; he's even cut his trademark curls. His company, now in its twenty-second year, is filled with dancers young enough to be his children rather than the friends with whom he came of age. When The Hard Nut, Morris's interpretation of The Nutcracker, opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week, only 5 of the 33 dancers who performed in the BAM premiere ten years ago will reappear.
This kind of durability is, to say the least, a rarity in the universe of New York modern dance. Like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp, Morris has gone from insurgent to icon. But unlike any of the others, he's gone from leader of a "youth and pea-soup collective" (as his general director, Barry Alterman, so aptly calls it) to steward of a brand-new, $7.4 million cultural institution in Brooklyn bearing his name.
"To have this extraordinary asset," says Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which sits across the street, "is an extraordinary anomaly. Most choreographers feel as though they've accomplished the greatest task just by finding a studio to make their work. Because -- and this you should put in italics -- there is no money. None."
Morris is perhaps the first world-famous alumnus of the seventies dance boom, when companies were plentiful, substantial grants to small troupes were available, and enthusiasm for experimental choreography ran high. "When Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor came of age in the fifties," says Ellen Jacobs, the veteran dance press agent, "modern dance was either ignored or held in contempt. People of Mark Morris's generation, on the other hand, could have the fantasy of becoming Mick Jagger."
It surely doesn't hurt that Morris has the cockiness and king-size personality of Mick Jagger, either, or that he first started drawing critical raves at roughly the same time George Balanchine died. "There was this institutional vacuum," says David R. White, executive director and producer of Dance Theater Workshop. "Though Mark's work was obviously very different from Balanchine's, it was also quite similar. He used the whole stage. He valued the ensemble. And he made the dances about the music. So there was this critical response, in certain quarters, that he was heir to the Balanchine spirit."
As Morris has matured, so too has his famous aesthetic, which was once a cracked kaleidoscope of bent legs and unpointed toes. Today, he works in lean, clean lines, and his dancers -- at first a motley, even an ungainly bunch -- are almost regulation-issue. "They're like a different line," says Isaac Mizrahi, the designer-philosophe and Morris's closest friend. "The company has changed its face entirely." He thinks for a second. "And its ass. The asses are smaller now."
Morris seems to take the same pleasure in his current popularity as he once did in his iconoclasm. "I don't believe that there's anything inherently criminal in your work being watched by lots and lots of people," he says. "If you're only happy with other dissatisfied choreographers watching your work, that's ridiculous."
Then again, Morris's work was never esoteric to begin with. He has always had a flair for the theatrical, always loved to make the audience laugh, always made unapologetic use of symmetry and pretty costumes and "dancey-dance movement," as Joan Finkelstein, director of the the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, likes to say. "Mark was never very, very avant-garde," says Jacobs. "He was doing dances to beautiful music twenty years ago. He's the acceptable enfant terrible."
That knack for striking a balance between accessibility and originality just may explain how Morris went from a curiosity in a church basement to a star attraction at the Mostly Mozart Festival. "No artist has had a more immediate impact across the spectrum of the dance world," says White. "And none so easily straddles our singular New York environment and the heartland."
"The company has changed its face entirely," says Isaac Mizrahi. "And its ass. The asses are smaller now."
For a man who's one of the best at what he does, it's astonishing how modestly Mark Morris lives. His one-bedroom apartment of lavender and mint green is in a beige, nondescript postwar building in a neighborhood that's not quite Murray Hill and not quite Kip's Bay. You or I could live there. Many hardworking New Yorkers could. When he greets me at the door, I tell him this. Actually, I shout it -- Bach is playing on the stereo, and Morris is whistling, with equal vigor, right along. He turns down the volume.
"Really?" He looks amused. "When I do a big piece, I don't, like, buy a château."
Though Morris no longer has the physique of a dancer (but a gut -- a frank, unconcealable, American-guy gut), he still has a face of surpassing loveliness, with strong bones and eyes set so far apart he seems biologically predisposed to take in the world at wide angles. When he speaks, it's hard to take your eyes off him. At the moment, he's discussing his favorite film images of choreographers. "James Cagney from Footlight Parade," he says. "Or Roger De Bris in The Producers. The line about him going to the choreographer's ball -- that's like the funniest thing in the world. I wish there were one."
And The Birdcage?
"The Birdcage is a piece of shit," he says. "It was a horrible, horrible movie. It's offensive to queers; it's hackneyed. Though the French movie was good. Funnyish. Not funny enough." He drags on a Dunhill.
In the dance world, Morris is known for a personality as charged as his choregraphy. He speaks quickly, smokes copiously, and observes the world with cruel precision. He brooks no dumb questions but tolerates naïve ones. He also has a limitless tolerance for caffeine.
Has Morris learned anything about making people happy over the years? "Yeah. It's impossible. That's what I've learned. It can't be done. And that's fine."
What about managing people?
"I'm still not great at it," he says. "I mean, I'm friendly and I'm funny and I'm smart and I work fast and I'm pretty honest, but I'm very bossy, and I'm very, very demanding, and I'm specific and not very patient. And though I don't mean to be particularly vicious, I know I can be. So if you can't handle that, you probably shouldn't really be in my company. Coffee?" He vanishes into the kitchen.
"I kind of think of Mark as a monster," says Mizrahi. "As a funny, cute monster that I love. Because he does exactly as he pleases with no consideration for anybody or anything. Always. And if it makes you happy, then you can be his friend. And if it doesn't, you can't."
Morris grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Seattle, the youngest child of three. Dance seemed to be printed in his chromosomes; in her great book, Mark Morris, Joan Acocella conjures an unforgettable image of him jamming his tiny young feet into plastic cups so that he could dance, like his sister, on pointe. His mother supported his interest. By the time he was 13, he'd taken up flamenco, ballet, and Eastern European folk dancing. When he was 17, instead of going to college, he went to Madrid to learn more Spanish dance. When he was 19, he came to New York.
Morris spent just four years dancing with other companies before founding a troupe of his own. His first big splash came at bam in 1984, with a trio of pieces called Gloria, O Rangasayee, and Championship Wrestling After Roland Barthes. It was also the year of the incident with Tharp.
"I'm less likely to make a scene today," he says. "That's less interesting to me now than it was. Now I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings unless I really want to hurt somebody's feelings. So. Do you want more coffee? Or is it not good?" Again, he vanishes into the kitchen. "It's weird, right?" he calls out. "Kona. Maybe I'll make the other one. A different bean."
Sure, I tell him, looking around the living room. His bookshelf is a shrine of doodads, covered in disco balls, penny jars, nutcrackers, Jesus statues, Ganeshas, half-mugs. A stuffed rooster sits on the television set. Some scraps on his desk are anchored by a giant Advil paperweight.
He seems to know exactly what I'm doing. "I like oversize stuff, undersize stuff, and multiples," he calls out, clanging cups.