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Dancing Under the Shadow of Well-Known Master

November 06, 1987|EILEEN SONDAK

SAN DIEGO — Mark Morris casts a giant shadow.

The leading dance critics in the country have dubbed him heir apparent to America's modern dance masters, and his name is fast becoming a household word throughout the international modern dance community.

While the dancers who perform with the Mark Morris Dance Group never fail to receive kudos for their collective excellence, individual performances are eclipsed by the aura of this reigning superstar.

San Diego-trained David Landis has been a Morris dancer since 1983. But he often goes unnoticed in concerts.

"It's all Mark's work," Landis said by telephone from his New York home. "Sometimes you get noticed, but his shadow is getting bigger all the time, and I'm usually one of a mass (of dancers). There are very few chances to be seen. Mark seems to do his best work with group pieces."

Fortunately, when the Mark Morris Dance Group moves into the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon for two separate programs of avant-garde dance this weekend (8 p.m. today and Saturday), Landis will get a greater share of attention. Local aficionados will keep an eye on this favorite son, whom many believe to be one of the best modern dancers the city has ever produced.

Tonight, Landis will dance in two of the four pieces on the Mark Morris program.

"Strict Songs," a rhythmically complex dance with a tribal flavor, will toss Landis and his fellow dancers about in tightly structured, metered bursts of energy. Set to the music of California composer Lou Harrison, this highly technical dance work will give San Diego audiences a chance to experience Morris' uncanny sense of musicality and boundless penchant for surprise.

Landis will return in "Gloria," a work he said is a favorite with him and audiences as well. "Gloria" is Morris' kinetic equivalent of Vivaldi's composition of the same name.

If you are chafing at the bit for a taste of Morris' acerbic wit, you will have to wait until Saturday night. But "My Party," a couples dance that explores relationships between the sexes, is certainly cause for celebration. It thrusts pairs of men and women--and couples of the same sex--into a variety of comic encounters and role reversals. But there's a decidedly dark side to the humor that pervades this party.

"It's very funny, then very touching," Landis said. "The women get to do a lot of lifting (a Morris trademark). We're not very specialized."

The two-concert series at the El Cajon center, with nine distinct works, promises to give local dance buffs a comprehensive introduction to Morris' exciting brand of dance making--a style Landis relates to "classical modern"--despite its avant-garde appeal.

"The foremost interest in his technique lies in his musicality. His choreography is pretty much a study in rhythm," Landis said. "Mark was a Balkan folk dancer and a student of flamenco, and he can pull out some startling things from Western music.

"But he's interested in classically modern things like weight and abrupt changes in direction--without showing any preparations."

Morris' company is gearing up to replace Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century as resident dance troupe in Brussels over the next three years, which means Landis will be out of the country at least half of the year. But Landis believes the Brussels connection will give him more time to do some dance making of his own.

"I've enjoyed my forays in the choreographic arena (Landis showed some of his work here in town earlier this year), and I would really like to give that a try on a more continuous basis," he said. "I think once we start doing Brussels, we'll actually have more time free in the States to do what we want."

How has working with the master influenced Landis' choreographic style?

"My interest in music certainly deepened from working with him," Landis said. "I discovered ways of using rhythm."

What's next?: "I hope to take my own work around the country during my free time, and of course, San Diego will be my first stop."

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