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Ballet Can Be Butch : MARK MORRIS, By Joan Acocella (Farrar Straus Giroux; $27.50; 306 pp.)

January 02, 1994|Paul Kafka | Paul Kafka, winner of the 1993 Times Book Prize for first fiction, is an accomplished ballet and modern dancer

Modern dance, since its earliest heroic days, has suffered from a chronic and painful irony deficiency. Anyone who has politely daydreamed through concerts in which well meaning young people in unitards walked, ran and occasionally danced through 40 or more minutes of anonymous electronic noise, is invariably shocked and delighted by the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris, a 37-year-old choreographer and dancer, dispenses with both synthesizers and small talk. His works are movement operas to complex scores in which difficult themes--suffering and redemption, the nature of love--are explored with patience and humility. But what most clearly distinguishes Mark Morris' work from that of his predecessors and most of his contemporaries is that his performances are orchestrated by peals of audience laughter.

Joan Acocella, author of "Mark Morris," describes the Christmas party that opens "The Hard Nut," Morris' updated "Nutcracker," this way.

The Stahlbaum living room is a perfect suburban fright: white vinyl couch, white plastic drink caddy, white plastic Christmas tree. . . . Mrs. Stahlbaum is a big, fussy, hyper-femme redhead--she is played by a man, Peter Wing Healey. . . . As for the Stahlbaum children, the eldest, Louise, is a horny teen-ager in go-go boots; the youngest, Fritz, is a truly loathsome little boy. . . .

While all this is certainly a welcome addition to the much belabored Ballanchine choreography, which in our time haunts American ballet in much the same way that annual alumni giving haunts university life, there is the danger that Morris' "Hard Nut" will sink to the level of kitsch parody. It does not. Morris' grounding in ballet, Balkan folk dance, classical flamenco and what he himself calls the "several flavors" of modern dance technique available in New York, is eclectic even by the standards of today.

Joan Acocella's book, "Mark Morris," is to conventional dance biography what "The Hard Nut" is to "The Nutcracker," and has the same invigorating impact. Acocella has written about dance for 15 years, but her background is in comparative literature. She does not confine herself to the backstage haunts of traditional dance criticism.

A thorough analyst of the structure of Morris' long dances, Acocella is also an insightful cultural historian who situates Morris in the context of contemporary dance and of modern dance throughout our century on both sides of the Atlantic. More ambitiously, Acocella places Morris in that impossible to describe American world--two parts TV, one part school or office life, one part family romance--which is all around us. In Acocella's devoted but never wide-eyed biography, Mark Morris becomes exotically ordinary. We begin to understand how rare a thing has happened here.

Acocella has three stories to tell, really: the first, a life story; the second, a critical account of 10 years of choreography; the third, a tale of an innocent abroad. Her opening chapter is a brief, horrifying account of Mark Morris meeting the press for the first time in Belgium:

As a French journalist once put it, (Morris) was part diva, part truck driver. . . . There was much about him that was effeminate, and he had the usual fun with this. (During his first season in Brussels, Belgium's Queen Fabiola attended one of his performances. "Vive la Reine!" people shouted as she came through the foyer. "I thought they meant me," Morris later said to a reporter.)

At the same time, rather unnervingly, he was also very butch--a big hairy guy who lumbered around noisily and waved a beer bottle at you as he spoke. . . . He was asked what he thought of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, the leader of Belgium's young, anguish-ridden dance-theater movement. "All you have to do here," he said, "is not wash your hair for a week and then sit on stage and act depressed and you've got it. 'Magnifique! Formidable!"

Needless to say, life did not at first go smoothly for young Mark in the Old World. He was, at age 32, artistic director of his own company with a budget of several million dollars a year from the aptly named Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, Belgium's state opera house. Morris must have been saying to himself, "This is not our rented Soho loft space. How did we get here?" As if in answer, Acocella begins Chapter 2, the biography proper.

Mark was born is in Seattle in 1957. Acocella writes of his childhood with a Dickensian appetite for the picaresque and the anecdotal. Maxine Crittendon Morris, Mark's mother, says, "I always picked my boyfriends for how they danced. . . . That's how I got together with (Mark's father) Bill." When Mark was eight, Maxine took him to a performance of Jose Greco's flamenco troupe. "That night he decided that he too would . . . be a (flamenco) dancer."

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