THERE'S A DARK IITTIE BAR IN BRUSSELS called Le Cercueil, where patrons sit at tables made of glass-lopped coffins amid the music of piped-in requiems. It was there, drinking beer out of a skull-shaped mug, Mark Morris remembers, that he conceived his madhouse reinvention of Tchaikovsky's Christmas classic, The Nutcracker. "It's spectacularly beautiful music," Morris says, "but The Nutcracker has been shellacked so many times you can't see it anymore. Most productions are so sugarcoated they give you diabetes immediately. I thought, 'I used to love this music' So I've scraped off the sugar and shellac."
Has he ever. In place of the music-box prettiness of conventional productions, Morris, 36—the wild-child dancer-choreographer and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient dubbed "his generation's one and only" by The New Yorker in 1989—has transformed The Nutcracker into something called The Hard Nut, in which the lush melodies of Tchaikovsky are presented amid a torrent GI Joes, explosive snowflakes, men in tutus and huge rats. Designed by cartoonist Charles Burns, the show also has bright splats of '60s decor against which dancers do pop steps like the hesitation and the stroll. This much-gaped-at and much-praised production, which first opened in Brussels in January 1991, will have its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York Dec. 11-27 and will be broadcast on PBS Dec. 16.
Morris has long been known for his extravagant and challenging style. From 1988 to 1991, when the Mark Morris Dance Group was the resident company at the Monnaie opera house in Brussels, his work often enraged audiences. Part of a piece called Mythologies—a gloomy meditation on striptease that included a male dancer naked except for cowboy boots-sent many Belgians into ecstasies of loathing. "There was amazing screaming and booing," says Barry Alterman, the group's general manager. "The front-page headline in Le Soir was MARK MORRIS GO HOME—in English, so he'd understand."
But Morris is hardly frivolous. "People think my work is more cynical and sarcastic than it is," he says. "Deep love, grief, things that would be embarrassing to talk about in conversation, I dig into in my choreography." He has created more than 60 dances in his 12-year career, to music ranging from religious baroque to the Violent Femmes and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Along the way he has become "one of the very best choreographers," says Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has worked with Moms off and on since 1987. "His work is deeply human and never superficial. It is touching but never drooly."
Morris grew up in Seattle, child of an English teacher and a housewife. A sort of Infant Phenomenon, he devised steps to Lawrence Welk with his two older sisters and created theater pieces in the living room. School was great at first—"I loved, loved, loved kindergarten," Morris says. "Blocks, music time, naps, snacks"—but after that, oppressive.
Flamenco was his springboard into dance. He began studying it al age 9, at a place called Verla Flowers Dance Arts, and was soon commandeering other students to be in dances he made up. "Mark was so brilliant, with this genius spark in a boy's body, that even old stagehands instinctively did what he said," says Flowers.
In 1976, Morris moved to New York City and bounced around various dance companies before founding his own dance troupe in 1980. His career since has had the trajectory of a wobbly rocket, buffeted at times by his outspoken disdain for most of the other dance he sees. Though he loves ballet as an art form, he dismisses most ballerinas as "dead virgins" because they are "encouraged to be stupid, pale, underweight, irresponsible children. They're raised like veal in those little sheds. They're unhappy, illiterate, inartistic manic-depressives with eating disorders and no menstruation. Similarly, he finds most contemporary choreography "dreadful—people just feeling good and drifting around." He once stood and hollered at the stage during a Twyla Tharp dance concert he especially detested. Small wonder that, as he says, "I feel like sort of an outsider in the dance community."
Morris's own core company of 16 are a robust lot. "We all have thighs and butts," he says. "I certainly do." The dance technique he demands of them differs from that of ballet, even from that of most other modern dance. "None of my work has the giant lifts or the huge leaps or the human pyramids," he says. "What makes my stuff so difficult to do is the detail stuff—opposing rhythms in different parts of the body simultaneously."
Along with ethnic dances, Morris says Busby Berkeley and Walt Disney have influenced his work. "The way Pluto to moves to music, or Snow White when the bluebirds and the squirrels get her dressed, is thrilling to me," he says. His performance as Dido in Henry Purcell's baroque opera Dido and Aeneas was drawn in part from Cruella De Vil in Disney's 101 Dalmatians. As a dancer, Morris has fluidity and snap, especially for a bulky man.
Artistically, Morris's greatest sustenance has probably been his mother, Maxine, 75, who nourished his early dreams. Though she is delighted he has lit up the sky in the dance world, Maxine says she is still somewhat aggrieved that "publications write reviews mostly about his beer drinking or his long hair or the clove cigarettes he used to smoke or that he's homosexual, and they hardly mention the dance."
"Some people do get stuck on my being gay," says Morris. "There's a certain school of straight man who, when they find out you're gay, assume you find them irresistible just because they're men. They're going, 'Aaaahh, stay away from me.' Because what, they're so sexy and desirable? Dream on." Morris is candid about his homosexuality partly because "a lot of people in the arts have been gay for thousands of years and have forgotten to mention it." The threat of AIDS dogs him. Anxiety about dying young "vibrates in the front of my head every day," he says. "I haven't even been tested, out of fear." He is happy in a relationship, though—"a fabulous, unusual, profound love with a gentleman who doesn't live in this country."
Right now he is looking for a permanent base in New York City, both for himself (since his return from Belgium he has been virtually homeless) and for his company. He also wants it understood that, however hallucinogenic his Hard Nut may be, this is serious dance. "A send-up? Absolutely not," he says. "I'm doing the scary original, the real thing."
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