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Mark Morris


Dancers in Morris's Dido & Aeneas.  

On the sunny autumn day Mark Morris's studio opened at 3 Lafayette Avenue, the Arts section of the Times led with a dream headline: MARK MORRIS DANCE CENTER ADDS LUSTER TO BROOKLYN. It should have been a glorious moment, a real coup, but few people focused on the Arts section that day. u.s. attacked, the front-page headline read. HIJACKED JETS DESTRY TWIN TOWERS AND HIT PENTAGON IN DAY OF TERROR.

Nevertheless, Morris's new home base -- funded mostly through large grants from the city, foundations, and individual donors -- is thriving. It has 400 students, most from Fort Greene. It has state-of-the-art gym equipment, an on-site physical therapist, plush dressing rooms, three rehearsal studios, and shiny, enabling spring floors. And it will soon have a 150-seat performance space.

"I think it also has a hot tub," says Harvey Lichtenstein, former guiding light of BAM and now the head of the bam Local Development Corporation. Lichtenstein helped Morris secure his building, once state-owned, for the fire-sale price of $200,000 in 1998. Wait -- a hot tub?

"He has something there," says Lichtenstein. "He works hard and likes to soak."

Just how Morris went from having no rehearsal space to 31,000 square feet of dancer paradise is no small matter -- even if he is Mark Morris. Today, he is the only name choreographer -- living, anyway -- to own his own studio in New York. His prodigious talent surely explains some of it, but Lichtenstein thinks the most powerful explanation resides in a single word: Belgium. In 1988, Morris's troupe relocated to Brussels to become the official dance company of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. His relationship with the Belgian press was lousy -- they didn't find his candor as charming as the American press did -- and his relationship with the critics was worse. But in Belgium, Morris realized how invaluable it was to have a home. It freed him to do nothing but create, and that he did: twelve dances in three years. "Belgium gave him a taste of what he wanted to shoot for," explains Lichtenstein, once a dancer himself. "I don't think other American groups have thought that big. If Paul Taylor had come to me and said, 'I want that building,' I would have done anything to make that happen, too. But it takes the individual choreographer."

Perhaps Morris has mellowed a bit with age. "I'm not interested in being, like, emperor for life of dance."

It didn't hurt that Morris had excellent and faithful management as well; unlike many artistic types, he is unafraid to delegate and has no problems working a room if asked to do so. He happily sends flowers to his benefactors, happily makes thank-you calls, happily charms people who might contribute to the company somewhere down the line. "He'll come back from somewhere and say he sat next to a rich woman on the plane," says Nancy Umanoff, the company's executive director, "and that she was fabulous, and that she loves dance. Then he'll drop her card in my lap. 'Here,' he'll say. 'Invite her to my next show.' "

At Morris's apartment, I ask if having his own studio added any extra pressures in his life. "I just don't want to be . . . absorbed," he says. "There's a big societal push toward smooth mediocrity. No bumps. No excellence. Not making trouble."

How realistic is it to worry about this? "It's not," he says. "But that's why I'd prefer to be seen as a loose cannon -- which I'm not, and never have been. But if that's agitating in some way, I like that. The worst thing that can happen is if people go to a show and don't talk about it afterwards."

Despite the fact that it has a home of its own, the Mark Morris Dance Group still spends roughly 22 weeks per year on the road, and touring is still how the troupe earns about 75 percent of its annual income. (In fact, it often loses money when performing in New York, because Morris has a penchant for orchestras and virtuoso musicians.) The group charges from $25,000 to $40,000 a performance, which might sound like a lot until you consider that the company has eighteen dancers, two staff members, four crew members, and anywhere from two to ten live musicians whenever it goes on the road.

Morris, clad in his favorite scarf and a violet T-shirt bearing the famous sketch of the Unabomber, is now standing on the stage of the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, reviewing music cues to Brahms's New Love Song Waltzes. One pianist he's never worked with before; the other has never done this program. Curtain is in six hours. There's little time for niceties.

"That's half-time," he tells one. "What are you doing?"

"It's too long on that," he tells the other. "I want it more Viennese."

Because Morris has had very little formal musical training, he doesn't always speak in a strict musical vocabulary. If there's dead, meaningless downtime, he'll complain that there's "too much digital silence." If the music's too tentative, he'll demand more "turbulence."

Yet whenever Morris creates any dance, it starts, always, with the music. Critics have often noted -- in both laudatory and scathing contexts -- that there's a Fantasia-like quality to his work, as if it were music made literal.

"It's too fast!" four dancers shout simultaneously at the top of a particularly complicated waltz.

"I know it's too fast," snaps Morris. "You're not running this. I'm running this. And I'm trying to fix it." He instructs the pianists to slow the pace. They begin again and Morris lies down on his back, watching again from the ground, so that the musicians can have an unobstructed view of the stage.

"When I was first asked to work with Mark Morris, I had no idea who he was," says Ilan Rechtman, one of the two pianists, on his fifteen-minute break. "But the moment I saw his work, I had this feeling that I wouldn't mind quitting what I do and following him wherever he goes. He has a totally magnetic personality, and I find him to be a better musician than most of the men and women I've worked with."

"Musicians always talk about structure," adds Joel Fan, the other pianist and Morris neophyte, about an hour before curtain. "Motifs, repetitions, valleys, mountains -- the things that hold pieces together. And what I've found with Mark is that his choreography mirrors the structure of the music so well. It's almost as if he were Schumann expressing himself through dance."

I ask if he was at all wounded by the severity of Morris's tone during rehearsal. "Of course not," he says. "When you're working, and you have a certain vision, you should never beat around the bush."

It's hard to watch Morris's work without thinking of mathematics. There's a logical, deeply classical structure undergirding almost all of what he does. At their most puzzling, his pieces look like calculus; at their most dazzling, like the elegant steps in a geometry proof. Many of them are saucy -- seldom do people laugh so much at dance concerts -- and most are athletic; when his dancers hurt themselves, it's invariably in their calves.

"His dances were always very kinetically satisfying," says Tina Fehlandt, who retired from Morris's company two years ago after dancing with it for twenty. "It seemed like whatever movement he chose was the only thing that could happen -- like every dance was the Ur-dance." When Morris started his career as a choreographer, skinny, linear bodies were in vogue. He didn't like them. He preferred his dancers fleshy, and he conceived their roles in revolutionary ways. Women danced with women and men with men; sometimes, women even picked men up.

In the age of Will & Grace, this kind of sex-role tweaking seems almost quaint. But it was startling for its time, and it had real physical consequences for his corps. "Before dancing with Mark, I spent two years dancing with Paul Taylor," says Joe Bowie, 38. "I was always squatting and jumping, always picking people up, because with Paul, men are men and women are women. But after a few months with Mark, I noticed I could wear jeans again. My thighs were no longer too big." He pauses. "Oh. And I finally had a neck."

As Morris's dances started to change, so, too, did the shape of his corps. Today, though his dancers still vary a good deal in age and ethnicity, they look much more as one would expect -- lean, conventionally shaped. And some of them didn't start out that way. Toward the end of her performing career, Fehlandt noticed that her body looked younger, not older; she had become lithe rather than thick. "They say that form follows function," she says with a shrug. "I guess this is what happened to me when Mark's dances got less galumpy."

"Hey, I never meant for it to be a freak show!" says Morris. "It was never like, 'Oh, I need more black people,' or 'Oh, I need someone shorter,' or 'Oh, I need more homosexuals.' So now it's like, 'Uh-oh -- I accidentally hired someone beautiful!' It's not like I mind."

He adds that the dancers who audition for him today are more traditional-looking because their training is more traditional; most universities emphasize ballet these days, even in their modern-dance programs. "Ten or twenty years ago," says Morris, "you didn't have both of those. Juilliard used to be a modern-dance school with a ballet side. Now it's sort of a contemporary-ballet dance . . . thing. Their dancers are more . . . amalgamated, I guess, than they are versatile."

Veterans of Morris's company all agree, however, that the one thing that hasn't changed over the years is Morris's vivid and demanding rehearsal style. "It's incredibly stimulating to be around Mark," says June Omura, who has danced with Morris for fifteen years. "He's brilliantly funny; he has impeccable timing. And then he has his very bad moods. That can be hard. Sometimes he says things to us as if we're deliberately trying to sabotage his work." She hesitates.

"What makes us able to put up with everything is that we love him and we love the work," she finally says. "Growing up, my dream was to dance with a great choreographer. I felt so sad I never could have danced for Balanchine. I used to think to myself, That kind of choreographer comes along once every hundred years -- what are the odds of my finding one? And yet that's what's happened."

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