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On Good Behavior : What happens when Mark Morris, known as the bad boy of dance, choreographs and directsthe elegant 18th century opera 'Orfeo ed Euridice?' Hint: think 'beauty' and 'simplicity.'

April 21, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed was recently named classical music critic of The Times

NEW YORK — Mark Morris wants to be interviewed in an uptown tavern.

It looks like a dive from the outside, but it's not. The nachos are just as Morris describes them--fabulous. Morris is known here, so the bartender is already pouring a pint of Anchor Steam from the tap as the choreographer walks in the door.

"Glug, glug, glug," Morris greets him.

His company also hangs out here, after rehearsals in a nearby borrowed studio for the new production of Gluck's wondrously elegant and, for its time, radically refined 18th-century opera "Orfeo ed Euridice." Morris is directing and choreographing the opera in collaboration with the Boston early music band, the Handel and Haydn Society, and taking it on the road.

The conductor, Christopher Hogwood, is already at the bar. So are Orpheus and Euridice--countertenor Michael Chance and the soprano Dana Hanchard--as are some members of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Morris joins them (it has to be at the bar, because only there is smoking allowed) and treats his interview as a performance. He says he would just as soon the reporter turn off the tape recorder so that he could just chat. He's not interested in formal questions. He answers with a defiantly minimal yes or no (and sometimes both) when he can get away with it, but he always adds a friendly laugh. He exclaims, "Shoot," when he is ready for the next question; "Another one, please," means beer.

But he also wants this publicity. The Gluck opera is an ambitious undertaking that, following its Iowa City premiere and performances in Boston, travels to Orange County and Los Angeles before heading on to Berkeley, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Edinburgh Festival. But although Morris is now the biggest name, and for a large segment of the public the only name, in modern dance, he has had very little exposure in Southern California during the past decade. So when "Orfeo" arrives at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (Wednesday and Thursday) and, under the auspices of UCLA, at the Wiltern Theater (Friday through next Sunday), Morris understandably wants the seats full.

Besides, he has a lot on his mind. He can't and won't keep from saying provocative things, even if he doesn't want them published. "I'll kill you, if you write that," he threatens after having criticized someone else's work.

Morris has arranged to talk right after the first run-through of the show and is still unwinding. He seems to physically pounce on thoughts, as if they too can be choreographed. He pays attention to the interview but also plays to the crowd, gesturing grandly. He knows he is entertaining and delights in being brilliant and irritating at the same time.

When it is suggested, for instance, that it's unusual for an opera director to have absorbed the score as thoroughly as he has Gluck's, the response is exaggerated modesty. During the rehearsal, Morris had sat on a stool next to Hogwood and sang the choral parts, in a small but accurate voice, along with the conductor. "I turn the pages when I hear other people turn the pages," he jokes.

But the joking is also a defense. In fact, Morris, who turned 40 this year, takes himself, his work, and particularly this project, very seriously. And even a compliment about his respectfulness toward music can make him touchy, serving instead to remind him of all times he has been accused of being self-indulgent and camp.

"Some people freak out because I seem to treat some things casually or cavalierly, and it's not true," he suddenly exclaims. "It's like the people who--" he breaks off, holding his empty glass aloft, "May I have another, thank you," and then picks the thread right back up--"people who thought that my 'Nutcracker,' 'The Hard Nut,' is like a camp, sarcastic sendup that is based on anger or frustration or something."

Morris' "The Hard Nut," his '60s-based interpretation of the Tchaikovsky ballet that begins seeming like a hilarious parody but ends up being dark and downright disturbing, has, in fact, been one of his great hits. But once Morris gets started, he seems to have to get it all out.

"I'm not going to spend that much time figuring something out and working really hard on it, and studying the music and spending a million and half dollars. It has a giant cast and giant orchestra. And it's Tchaikovsky!

"I'm not going to use that to jerk people around. That's so insulting to even think that. You don't have to like it, of course. That's a totally different topic. You can say I have no talent, but you can't say it's not legit.

"Also, I'm responsible; I've always been responsible. If I say something that gets me into trouble, maybe I shouldn't have said it. But I also mean it. I say what I mean. And sometimes people don't want you to answer a question that they ask you in an interview. They want, like, 'Oh, it's lovely,' instead of, like, 'I'm exhausted; I'm having a nervous breakdown; you woke me up; you called five minutes early.' "

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