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Mark Morris: Playful and profound

Aug. 29, 2003
By Mary Ellen Hunt

Mark Morris can't resist a caper.

There's a quiet conference room set aside for a Sunday afternoon interview at the San Francisco Ballet's building, but then Morris peeks into the elegant adjoining office of the ballet's executive director, Glenn McCoy.

"Let's use Glenn's office," he says with a grin, like a mischievous kid sneaking into the principal's office.

He stops to inspect a poster of dancer Muriel Maffre propped in the corner, then sinks comfortably into McCoy's couch with a Sapporo in his hand.

"Now, what do you want to know?"

Onstage and off, Morris, who turns 47 today, seems never to have lost touch with his childlike, highly charming sense of fun. And, like a kid, the choreographer gets antsy sitting for too long. Even relaxing after rehearsing his new piece for San Francisco Ballet, Morris fidgets and gestures, punctuates his sentences with a drawl, and at one point hikes a sandal-clad foot onto the coffee table and starts stretching as he talks.

But then, given his demanding schedule, he probably needs to stay in perpetual motion. When asked about Mark Morris Dance Group's latest work for UC Berkeley's Cal Performances -- a piece premiering Sept. 12 titled "All Fours" and set to Bela Bartok's Fourth String Quartet -- Morris interrupts with characteristic slyness.

"Do you want to ask if it's finished?"

Is it finished?

"No," he says, deadpan. "I have three days to finish. It's almost finished."

Man out of time

"I don't know time," he continues. "I'm all mixed up. I'm just here working on a ballet. I don't know what the (heck's) going on. My company starts tomorrow rehearsing 'L'Allegro' in New York. I go back on Wednesday. And then I come back here for two weeks. It's crazy. Then we'll be back to do 'Hard Nut' in December. Then 'Sylvia' happens (at San Francisco Ballet) in the spring, so it's like, I might as well live here really!"

In fact, Morris is becoming a Bay Area mainstay. Besides his close ties with San Francisco Ballet -- for whom he's made five works -- he has also recently announced Mark Morris Dance Group's new partnership with Cal Performances, an arrangement that will bring the company to Berkeley for two seasons of two weeks each, in addition to continuing its existing local outreach efforts, as well as workshops and education programs.

"We were always going steady," Morris says dryly, "and now we're really engaged."

Part of that plan is that Cal Performances will continue commissioning works such as "All Fours" from Morris. In a way, the Bartok piece brings the artist back full circle. When the Dance Group made its New York debut in 1980, his duet "Zenska," choreographed to the fourth movement of the same quartet, was featured on the program.

"I decided to go back and do the whole piece of music. So one section of it is really almost unchanged from what I choreographed many years ago and now it's a duet for two women," he explains. "I built the other 20 minutes around it. So now it's become sort of the seed for this whole piece."

No going back

Morris notes that, unlike some choreographers, he doesn't tinker with his works much once they have been created.

"I don't. I won't. If something's a mistake, or if the logic is wrong -- like 'What was I thinking? That should, of course, go that way' -- that's different. But I wouldn't re-choreograph it, because that's what I made up then. I could make up another dance to the same music if I wanted to, but I won't revise it to meet my standards of today. Otherwise, every dance would end up being the same, if I keep revising it to how I feel now."

In fact, he insists that his fluid "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," considered by many to be his greatest work and which the company will revive for the first week of its September run, has not changed since its 1988 premiere.

Morris created the enormously popular evening-length ballet when his dance company first arrived in Brussels for the start of a controversial three-year tenure as the national dance company of Belgium. Critics in that country were baffled by Morris' outrageous style.

"When we were offered the position in Brussels, they asked, 'What would you like to do that's a big project?'" he recalls. "Well, absolutely I wanted to do this, because it's got an orchestra, big chorus, soloists, very complicated sets, 24 dancers. It was a very, very big piece and I couldn't ever have made it up in the States, because of time and money.

"The production was built in Belgium, but it was given to us when we left, so we own all the sets and costumes. As it wears out, we gradually replaced bits of it, but we could never ever have had the money to put on a show that grand."

Of art and Teletubbies

Morris notes that despite his current clout, given the scarcity of arts funding, he couldn't produce a work of that scale in the United States. The attitude toward arts support, even in Europe, is becoming discouraging. "Less that the arts are fundamental aspects of civilization, but they're more like a luxury," he notes vehemently. "I disagree, and not just because I work in the arts business, but I don't feel that way. If you can't have music, you shouldn't have anything."

Morris starts to answer a question about "Sylvia," his commission for San Francisco Ballet's 2004 season, when his assistant Susan Weber comes by to see if he's done. He is momentarily distracted.

"Put on this suit," he says, pointing to a white Tyvek jumpsuit hanging on the door. "There's a biohazard suit here. It must be Glenn's."

"You were kidding," she says, "but I'm going to do it." And she does, donning a hard hat, just for the fun of it.

"'Sylvia?'" he says, jumping back to the topic at hand. "Well, first of all, I was asked to do a full-length ballet. Susan, that's fantastic. Very slenderizing ..."

He comes back briefly to the interview: "Helgi asked me to do a full-length ballet which is a wonderful compliment and expression of trust, because it's not cheap. I'm not cheap, and putting on a new full-length ballet is not cheap. And I love working with his company. I think it's the best ballet company in the United States." He jabs a finger emphatically at his interviewer's notepad to indicate that this must be written down.

"That looks so beautiful, Susan. From the side it's spectacular, very Teletubbies. I love the Teletubbies."


• WHO: Mark Morris

• WHAT: Mark Morris Dance Group performs "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" (Thursday-Sept. 7); "Serenade," "Going Away Party," "Grand Duo" and "All Fours" (Sept. 12-14)

• WHERE: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft at Telegraph, Berkeley

• WHEN: Thursday through Sept. 14

• HOW MUCH: $38-$64

• CONTACT: 510-642-9988,

This article first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.


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