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DANCE : Beyond the Bad Boy Years : Let's get one thing straight right now: If you think Mark Morris is dance's bad boy, you're too old. But, read on, you might be able to detect some residual attitude.

October 02, 1994|Chris Pasles | Chris Pasles is a staff writer for The Times' Orange County edition

Once hailed as the innovative "bad boy" of modern dance, Seattle choreographer Mark Morris vaulted to the international big leagues in 1988 when he and his company took over residency from Maurice Bejart and the Ballet of the 20th Century at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. He was 32.

Bitter controversy dogged him during his three-year tenure there, however. Pro-Bejart factions, used to the old dance spectacles, attacked Morris' pure-movement approach to dance. Their anger--and Morris' reckless public statements--boiled over into a major press war. One paper finally printed, "Mark Morris, Go Home!" in a headline.

But Morris and his beleaguered troupe stuck it out. Eventually they garnered general enthusiasm with "The Hard Nut," Morris' deconstruction of the "Nutcracker" ballet, made in his final year there. But the years took their toll on him and the company.

Morris never lacked supporters, though. Ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov invited him to co-found his modest White Oak Dance Project in 1990, and that relationship continues. A year later, the MacArthur Foundation gave Morris a "genius" grant. Last year, the first book-length biography of him, written by New York dance critic Joan Acocella, appeared.

Since his return, he has been committed to keeping his Mark Morris Dance Group working. The New York-based troupe dances about 90 performances a year, most of which take place outside New York City. The 16-member company (including Morris) operates on a $2-million annual budget, quite a comedown from the Monnaie's multimillions.

Taking time off from rehearsals for a work he is creating for San Francisco Ballet, Morris looked back on the years since Brussels with wry, sly and typically open directness. He and his troupe will make their only Southern California date this season on Wednesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

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Question: How do you feel about being known as the "bad-boy" choreographer of modern dance?

Answer: First of all, I'm only called a 'boy' by people that are older than I am. You have to be 38 or older to call me that, I guess. I tried to see that appellation as a certain fondness. That's how I chose to see it. I think it means one is precocious or something or (that) one doesn't lie too much.

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Q: What are you doing in San Francisco?

A: I'm here starting a piece for the San Francisco Ballet--there's no title yet--to Lou Harrison's Piano Trio. Lou is brilliant and of a generation in which a lot of West Coast composers were seriously learning and hearing Eastern music, Asian music, which has turned into a sad state of so-called world music, a postmodern pastiche of Eastern and Western forms.

Lou predates that. He's dealing with a direct knowledge of Eastern music. It's very smart and beautifully produced music in general. I like to work with him. He's a friend of mine too.

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Q: Do you do much free-lance choreography?

A: I don't do very many commissions for other companies. In this case, this is the second piece for San Francisco Ballet. I'm doing two commissions this year. (The other is for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.) The rest is for my company.

My preference is to work with my company. I like to work in ballet. So those are the commissions I do for things my company doesn't do.

But also there are a lot of people who want (my) dances. I just don't want to give it to them. I don't want to put my company on unemployment. I could have a fabulous career as a free-lance choreographer--and not have a company. That is the farthest thing I want. I work in opera when I can. That can become tricky.

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Q: What is your relationship now with Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project?

A: It keeps on dancing. White Oak still is happening. Frankly, for the last few months, we've been on the opposite schedules. I haven't seen them much. I haven't seen Mr. Baryshnikov much. But that happens. They're doing some of my works. They're traveling all over the place. Hurray for them.

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Q: What have you been up to recently?

A: What I've always been doing: I make up dances that I think are what should happen, how I particularly decide to respond to music and employ people as dancers. That's my choice, and if that's surprising or unconventional or blah blah blah , that's not my problem. I don't like to see the same thing all the time.

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Q: How do you feel about Joan Acocella's biography?

A: I think it's excellent. I didn't write it. I definitely did not write it. It's her opinions and theories and stuff. I think it's perfectly admirable, and it's also not a trash dance book like many are that show who slept with whom and who took cocaine. That's not too interesting, really.

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Q: Acocella says the company doesn't dance much of your pre-1985 works anymore. Why is that?

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