"We are barefoot dancers from America," said Mark Morris in an offhand way, gazing into the Art Nouveau-style mirror in his dressing room in one of Europe's most glorious opera houses, Brussels' Theatre Royal de la Monnaie.
That other barefoot dancer from America, Isadora Duncan, might have spoken the same sentence 80 years ago, while conquering Europe, but her tone would have been Greek-goddess lofty. Morris, on the other hand, spoke as if giving directions to the subway, and while doing so, he strung a thread through a little cross and then through one pierced ear, scooped up his copious curls, and, holding them at the nape of his neck, posed like a World War II-era pin-up girl.Isadora's style was grandiose; Morris's is goofy. He saves the grandeur for his choreography, which reached a new height and a new scale with November's premiere of his evening-length treatment of "L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato," Handel's pastoral ode after poems by Milton. The triumphant two and one-half hour work for 24 dancers weaves movement, music and text together with tenderness and ingenuity.
"L'Allegro" stands to be Mark Morris' equivalent of Balanchine's 1934 landmark "Serenade," the first work the master choreographer created after moving from Europe to the United States. Morris' journey has been in the opposite direction.
In September, the 32-year-old from Seattle transplanted his company to Brussels, where he now enjoys working conditions no other American modern dance choreographer has known.
Thanks to a government subsidy that has made his company virtually the national ballet of Belgium - the official title is Monnaie Dance Group/Mark Morris - he can now create without worrying about where to rehearse, how to pay his dancers, where to perform, how to pay for the hall. Most American choreographers have to work with canned music; Morris now has the Monnaie's orchestra and chorus at his disposal.
Morris' unpretentious troupe of Americans in jeans and rumpled T-shirts used to wait on tables to pay their own air fare to wherever Morris could get a gig. Now they have year-round salaries of more than $25,000, health insurance, their own full-time masseuse and dressers to zip them into their costumes. The dancers were horrified to learn that they were in the 45 percent income tax bracket. On the other hand, a decent one-bedroom apartment in Brussels can be had for $250 a month.
Some critics fear the deal may be too good for Morris, and lead to softening, into the style that awaits European dancers: civil servants who are educated at state expense and face virtually no threat of being fired. Mark Morris shows no sign of becoming corrupted, nor do his dancers get off easy. In Brussels they put in 10-hour days, six days a week, with one day off to figure out how to operate the washing machines in Belgian laundromats.
Morris didn't uproot his company because he was dying to leave the United States. He left because he wanted to make dances.
Belgium gave him the chance; the United States hadn't, even though, by the time he left, Morris had been crowned the most exciting young American choreographer of the 1980s, beloved by audiences who couldn't take one more minute of minimalist dance to trance-inducing scores by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Morris doesn't do minimalism.
In "L'Allegro" he presents a full-blown hunting scene with dancers as hounds, horses, trees and 18th-century aristocrats. What's more, he creates this picture with no props or special costumes. The dancers wear neutral dresses and tunics. It's the movement that spells out the scene, and that movement springs from the music.
"Handel taught me about form, about how to construct," Morris said, adding that there was a lot of math in both Handel's music and his choreography. "Handel is more complicated than he sounds. My work is complicated, too. But some of the press here said it looked as though anybody could do it."
Which is the point. That everyday look some members of the Belgian press criticized requires great strength, stamina, intelligence and attention to detail.
Morris' range is phenomenal. He's had his country-and-western period and his baroque period, and he has danced out the lyrics of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," treating lines such as "But only God can make a tree" with touching sincerity.
Morris grew up in Seattle, where his father was an English teacher and his mother a secretary. When he was 8, his mother took him to see Jose Greco, which led to his studying Spanish dance and then ballet.
Morris was always listening to the radio and pounding on the piano, and he attended an Episcopal church that was big on both music and ritual. His father died while he was in high school, and he and his mother became a team. As a teen-ager, Morris joined a Balkan folk-dance group, studied flamenco in Madrid for six months, then moved to New York, where he performed with the companies of Eliot Feld, Lar Lubovitch, Hannah Kahn, and Laura Dean, never staying long enough to acquire the son-of-someone look of most aspiring choreographers. In 1980 he formed his own company.
Transience is a given in the dancer's life, and most dreaded of all are the cross-country tours of one-night stands. "It's not the travel," said Morris' unconventional manager, Barry Alterman. "It's not going to Lincoln, Nebraska, per se. It's going to this place where nobody cares, where you're just filling a slot on a series. What's hard to maintain is fervor." the chance to escape this mode of life made the move to Brussels especially attractive.
The Morris transplant is due to Gerard Mortier, the all-powerful head of the Monnaie, and now considered the most adventurous opera house director in Europe. He and Alterman put the move together.
Dance company managers nowadays are likely to have degrees in arts management. Not Alterman, who doesn't have a degree in anything. Casual in the extreme, he refers to Morris' forthcoming "Dido and Aeneas" as "The Dido Show" the way someone else might say "The Gong Show."
Alterman met Morris when they were both living in Hoboken, N.J. "Every night, we'd eat rice and beans in front of the quartz heater," he said. "I don't mean this to sound like `La Boheme' or anything. Things sure are different now."
Dancers' relationships with managers are adversarial almost by definition, but not in Morris' troupe. The dancers admire Alterman because he "doesn't care about cars or apartments or briefcases," said company member Penny Hutchinson. "He's incorruptible."
Morris's troupe replaces Maurice Bejart and his flamboyant Ballet of the 20th Century, former residents in Brussels, which seemingly needs an antidote to its miserable gray winter weather.
Mortier knew the sort of replacement he wanted. Speaking like a latter-day Diaghilev determined to astonish his audience, he said, "We had to do something completely new for Europe, to bring a man of the future, a new great choreographer here, someone our public did not know."
Mortier invited Morris and his troupe to the Monnaie after seeing them perform Morris's "Gloria in D" (Vivaldi) in Stuttgart last June.
Mortier was certain of his choice. "What fascinated me," he said, "is Mark's musicality, which I haven't seen (equaled) since Balanchine and Robbins and maybe Paul Taylor." He also liked Morris's sense of humor.
"So many people in the arts take themselves so seriously," said Mortier. Morris takes his work seriously, but the young choreographer, whose two favorite words are "cool" and "groovy," refuses to present himself as a Genius sent from on high. His unpretentiousness shows even in those spiritual seekers in "Gloria," who are sincere and humble, finding their faith rather than flaunting it.
For Morris, spirituality and whimsy seem not incompatible: Every Mark Morris program contains the line, in very small print, on the very last page, "The Monnaie Dance Group/Mark Morris gives thanks to Maxine Morris and God." Why thank his mother? "She's why I exist. And she's been fabulous." Why God? "God is why my mother exists. And all people do in a work of art is, like, they do God. They do what things should be like." They "do" an ideal.