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[whitespace] Sandpaper Ballet The Bad Boy of Ballet: Morris' irreverent approach inflames some while challenging all.

Marty Sohl

Mark Morris' 'Sandpaper Ballet' premieres in SF

By Kathryn Roszak

Mark morris moves people. That's his job. The flamboyant, energetic choreographer, now in his 40s, is at the top of his profession. Considered the controversial "bad boy" of modern dance when he garnered the prestigious MacArthur "genius" award, Morris now has dances commissioned by opera and ballet companies around the world. In The Hard Nut, an irreverent take on the classic ballet The Nutcracker featuring a dysfunctional "family" Christmas and a corps de ballet of whirling male snowflakes (broadcast on PBS), Morris merged the high art of modern dance with pop-culture entertainment appeal and captured the public imagination.

Morris has had a longtime relationship with CAL Performances in Berkeley, where the Mark Morris Dance Group is one of the season's hottest tickets. In March, the choreographer flew out from New York for the world premiere of Dixit Dominus, a piece set to the music of Handel that played to sold-out houses and standing ovations. This month he's back in the Bay Area, this time with Sandpaper Ballet, his third world premiere for San Francisco Ballet.

As a dancer Morris was known for his lush, androgynous looks, often letting his dark hair cascade around his shoulders. Lately, though, he sports shorter hair and a more serious look. As he talks, he's sweet and disarmingly confident. "I'm very happy with this dance. I've known the music by Leroy Anderson my whole life," he says before humming a few jaunty bars of the theme for The Late Show. He continues, "There's 'The Typewriter' and it's got a typewriter in it as part of the music. Well, I wanted to use a big orchestra and have the music played live. It's a big dance for 25 people. Every movement starts with a perfect cube made by the dancers, a 5-by-5 grid. It's a fabulous dance, straightforward, beautiful, fun and good."

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi is creating Morris' costumes, his first work for a classical ballet company. Morris says of the collaboration, "I've worked with him before on the opera Platee, which was a great smash hit. Everyone I work with listens to the music, so we're all listening to the same music. Isaac proposes things to me and I look at sketches. We talk on the phone every day. We like each other and each other's work." The costume sketches are unusual: the unitards are green on the lower half and sky-patterned on top. "It's a horizon line," says Morris. "It's perfectly symmetrical when the dancers line up in the grid. When they move it will all be different."

Morris is clearly relishing working with the ballet dancers. "I studied ballet. It's a language I speak. The San Francisco Ballet dancers are very good. Of course, the women are on pointe. Creating a piece takes longer when I'm working with people I don't work with every day. But the process is the same. I tell the dancers 'Do this, now change it to that.' I'm very demanding. It's not easy because I'm not ever anywhere for long. Working with all these different people is very hard and very good."

Of course, there is one company Morris gets to spend a lot of time with--his own, the Mark Morris Dance Group. To fans--and Morris' acolytes are famously devoted--what is most appealing about the company is the warm, human quality their performances exude. Because the dancers don't necessarily look like dancers but instead like ordinary people, they create kind of identification in their audiences that differs from the aesthetic awe engendered by other companies. Morris' choreography celebrates his dancers' diversity with exuberant running and folk dance patterns. There's nothing high-tech there, just people enjoying dancing together, and that very simple depiction of community speaks to viewers.

Morris also has a unique ability to bring a classical score into the present with his up-to-date take on relationships. Men dance with men, women couple with women, and then both sexes just as naturally dance with each other.


Where to catch the latest Mark Morris creation.


Morris grew up in a working-class family in Seattle, where he became interested in folk dance and the spirit of community surrounding it. His work ethic reflects his upbringing. "Making dances is my only skill. You get good at it by doing it," he says. "I started taking dance classes at 8 and I made my first good dance at 15. It's my job. I have an arts job and I work very hard. These dances don't just exist in my head. I go into the studio with the dancers and I work to make it happen."

These days, Morris is weary of talking about his bad boy image, perhaps because his work doesn't seem all that subversive anymore. Early in his career, though, the obvious gay eroticism in his dances stirred plenty of controversy. When the Mark Morris Dance Group had its prestigious stint as the resident company at Belgium's Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in the '80s, many critics were inflamed. "I want to be known as gay and as a good artist doing beautiful, excellent and satisfying work," Morris says now.

Morris accepted the Belgian engagement primarily because the terms were irresistible. The European system offered a home theater, rehearsal space and a living wage, none of which, despite the unprecedented success of the Mark Morris Dance Group, were obtainable in the United States. Now that the company has returned to the States, Morris says, "we make most of our money touring, which is capitalistic and good." Despite the recent tortured history of the NEA and all its cutbacks, Morris isn't too worried about cash flow. "Opera seems healthy, and music is in good condition. People should be supported by the culture and society to do work which is good in every medium." The Mark Morris Dance Group is as stable as they've ever been. For years they've had to rent studio space all over New York City, but they're about to move into their first permanent home. "I'm really excited," Morris says. "Millions of dollars are being raised and we'll have a building with studios near the Brooklyn Academy of Music."

"You know," he says, "everyone says dance is dying. At the end of every century they always say, 'The end is nigh.' But I think changes are coming. I think mime is going to make a comeback as a reaction to technology. I think that's good. Besides, I'm not going anywhere. What I do is simply the only thing I know how to do." A leader of his art form at the brink of a new century, Morris has a lot to look forward to and so do we.

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From the April 12, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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