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Dance driver

From Seattle to Brooklyn, Mark Morris woos audiences with dances traversing folk, traditional and modern forms

Part diva, part truck driver. That's how a French journalist described Mark Morris after meeting the bratty boy genius and enfant terrible of modern dance.

Much has been said about Morris' dual nature since he first arrived on the national scene, particularly well stated in Joan Acocella's 1993 book, 'Mark Morris.' Part clown, part serious artist, Morris is at once solemn and ridiculous. His unbuttoned dance style, though, is no goof. He's strict about dance tradition.

Morris' dancers often are noted for their physical variety. They come in all shapes, sizes and weights. Big, bare feet slap the floor. The demi-pliŽ, a hefty half-squat, is used liberally. So is humor.

Nonetheless, some of Morris' best dances, such as 'L'Allegro,' are beautiful by the most conventional standards. The unbridled joy of the movement and the choreographer's musicality make Morris a perennial audience favorite.

Folk beginnings

Born in Seattle, Morris had a childhood peopled by imaginative characters, a cross-dressing grandpa and other larger-than-life relatives. He decided to be a professional flamenco dancer when he was 9. Dance teacher Verla Flowers took him under her wing, and Morris' mother, Maxine, faithfully shuttled her son to and from dance classes.

Rabidly curious about music, Morris taught himself to play piano. He also played make-believe and put on shows. He was always up to something.

Morris attended a tough Seattle high school, where he was voted 'loudest voice' in ninth grade. Classmate Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, remembers that he wore an old overcoat with a different brooch on it every day. At 13, he fell in with the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble, a free-lovin' dance group that threw itself into the study of the folk dances of Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Morris left for New York at age 19 to dance with the best American companies of the day. He created the Mark Morris Dance Group four years later. He would fast become the most controversial choreographer of his time.

Early studies in Spanish and Balkan dance forms still influence Morris' choreography. Community-based line and circle dances Ñ wherein hands are joined and arms linked Ñ express the spirit of his dance: coming together in sorrow and happiness.

New digs inspire

In 2001, Morris opened a $6 million building across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For a company that began as a group of close friends who danced, slept and traveled together Ñ to Belgium and back when they took up residency for three years at the Royal Opera House in Brussels Ñ this is a whole new permanence.

'It's a great, beautiful, wonderful place, and it's perfect for us,' Morris says by phone from Brooklyn. True to form, Morris is quick to point out the limitations of most questions posed.

Is he still 'part provocateur, part traditionalist,' as postulated by biographer Acocella?

'Whether it's still an apt description or not, well, I don't necessarily agree that it ever was,' he answers. 'I mean, I wouldn't describe myself that way.'

How, then, would he describe himself?

'I wouldn't,' he says with a laugh. 'I would describe myself as a choreographer and dancer.' Everything else is a matter of interpretation, he says.

A different tact, then. What is 'the most musical of choreographers' listening to lately?

'Whatever I'm working on I'm listening to. But I always listen to Bach. Always. And that's not because I'm working on anything with Bach Ñ it's because it's the best music around. And Bartok's String Quartet No. 4.'

Something for everybody

There are now 18 dancers in the Mark Morris Group, many of whom are about half his 44 years. After Morris creates a piece with a few particular dancers in mind, he often winds up expanding it as he tries it out on the company until all the dancers Ñ including the understudies Ñ are involved. The maximalist in him can't stand leaving anyone out, it seems.

'I'm a sucker,' he admits. 'It's an impulse that happens. Of course, I don't always follow it.'

Though he may be generous to his dancers in this regard, he's no pushover. 'I'm very demanding,' he says succinctly.

Half the Portland show, presented by White Bird, is dedicated to a Portland-born composer named Lou Harrison. If you haven't listened to his music, Morris says, you are missing out:

'I recommend his chamber music, the string quartet set. I would recommend strongly the Third Symphony. There's something, though, in all of his music.'

In days gone by, it was not uncommon to find the fun-loving Morris enjoying a cup of cheer with his dancers after the curtain call at the corner bar.

When the so-called truck driver-diva is asked if he still enjoys a cold one and a nice smoke, it's only the diva who answers: 'I don't think it's very important for people to know that about me. I'm all for people doing whatever they want: That's what I'm for.'

Ten-four, good buddy.

Contact Michaela Bancud at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..