Morris Major

Six dancers and some folding metal chairs set the stage for "The Office," one of four works that the Mark Morris Dance Group will perform Friday at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. The members of the sextet whirl, throw their hands in the air, and stamp in repetitive patterns to the folk-dance rhythms of nineteenth-century Czechoslovakian composer Antonin Dvor,ak's Five Bagatelles for String Quartet and Harmonium. Periodically a woman with a clipboard enters and leads a dancer off-stage; eventually only one remains standing before the audience.

Morris originally choreographed "The Office" for Zivili, an Ohio-based Croatian dance troupe whose movements jibe with Dvor,ak's ethnic-infused music. The work's Central European flavor, and the deliberate disappearance of the dancers (suggesting a bureaucrat's arbitrary game of real-life musical chairs), have led critics to interpret "The Office" as the choreographer's comment on the war in Bosnia.

"That's not what it's about," sighs Morris, reached by phone at his New York City apartment last week. "It's not a particularly happy dance, but it's not that specific. Some people go away, is what happens -- that's all I'm saying," he adds somewhat cryptically, his voice edged with impatience. "It's based on the music, the way all my work is."

Morris, known for his rock star irreverence, shoulder-length curls, acid tongue, and remarkable choreographic vision, first called attention to himself in 1980 when his company, at the time merely a group of friends who all lived in New York City, began staging performances. The Seattle native quickly became known as dance's bad boy, creating works in which dancers in dirty underwear had sex with rubber dolls, or performed an elegant, old-fashioned striptease. But it was quickly apparent that Morris offered more than shock value. Critics, stunned by both the structural and emotional power of his dances, discarded the enfant terrible label to brand him a wunderkind, someone capable of embracing traditional aspects of dance within brazenly innovative work.

In 1988 Morris and his troupe escaped the all-too-typical financial straits suffered by American artists when they were invited to become the resident company at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, the Belgian state opera house. In his three-year term there, Morris worked prolifically. Notable among the pieces he created was The Hard Nut, a campy, white-trash version of the sugary Christmas perennial The Nutcracker. Toying with the classic, Morris set his rendition in the Sixties (the piece was televised in the U.S. on PBS). But the brash choreographer's dances and the tastes of the generally conservative Belgians were not a great match. While the dancer made his opinion about European pretentiousness clear when he told Vanity Fair "all you have to do [in Europe] is not wash your hair for a week and then sit on a stage and act depressed and you've got it," his Belgian hosts were no less timid in their judgment of him -- "Mark Morris Go Home," urged one newspaper.

Back in New York, Morris, now 39, has proven the folly of that criticism. The Wall Street Journal, in a review that is typical of the kind written of his performances, called him "the hope of contemporary dance, not simply in the U.S. but worldwide." Dance critics both here and abroad often refer to him as the heir to Balanchine, and his work has been acknowledged by a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" fellowship. For Morris, who creates his works with a score in hand, dance is about music; both the organization and the emotion of his visual images are shaped by musical form. "I decide to choreograph a piece of music, and I begin studying it," he says. "The dance is in the music. The work I do is in the score analysis -- it has to do with the structure that the composer put down in the music."

Morris's inspirations are eclectic: Brahms, Stephen Foster, Gershwin, polkas, waltzes, and requiems; Michelle Shocked and Violent Femmes. He frequently performs to live musical accompaniment that can include an orchestra, a choir, and vocal soloists. Tomorrow night, when Mark Morris and his seventeen-member multiethnic company make their Miami debut, they will perform to recorded music, presenting a repertory program that invokes a mix of moods.

The first piece, "Lucky Charms," is danced to Jacques Ibert's Divertissement, the score for the Twenties silent movie The Italian Straw Hat. "I've never seen the movie, which is fine," admits Morris, who describes the work for a dozen dancers as "very, very, active -- sort of a show business dance with very loud costumes."

"Beautiful Day," set to a cantata attributed to Bach or Georg-Melchior Hoffman, is, according to Morris, "a quiet, private duet for a man and a woman." Meanwhile, "Gloria," inspired by Vivaldi's Gloria in D, features ten dancers. "It's set to the glorious section of a mass and it deals with the text of that," Morris explains matter-of-factly. "The Office" is also on the program.

These varied selections should illustrate the deliberate formalism and piercing emotion that are characteristic of Morris's work; the choreography incorporates his personal treatment of elements adapted from far-reaching dance styles, including flamenco, jazz, ballet, Indian and Asian dance, European folk dance, and country two-step.

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