Sunday, April 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Outspoken onstage and about his work

Seattle Times music critic

Coming up

Mark Morris Dance Group

Meany Theater, University of Washington; Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. nightly; preconcert lectures at 7:15 p.m. in the Meany Hall west lobby. Tickets are $43, at 206-543-4880 or Ticketmaster outlets.

No one who met Mark Morris in the late 1970s would ever forget that first sight of him: long, dark tumbling curls, a sinuous body, a white face with a cigarette hanging out of those sculpted lips, and the pale, seen-it-all eyes of a fallen angel.

When he spoke, you knew this Seattle-born genius would say exactly what he felt like saying, even if you couldn't print it. But interviewers around the country agree that they were never sure which Mark they were going to get: the witty, warm one, eager to talk about his works in progress — or the brusque one, jeering at his second career as "media whore," firing off replies like "Next question!"

Earlier this month, it was unquestionably Morris at his best on the other end of the phone, in his state-of-the-art Brooklyn studio that opened almost four years ago. He still says exactly what he feels like saying, which is kind of comforting.

Ask him about a recent Washington Post review that suggested the new "Violet Cavern" (which we'll see in Seattle) might be "one of Morris' most politically pointed works," and he laughs.

"Really? Who said that? — That's not true at all. It's not what I do," he says.

"I just don't think that way, about politics and dance."

Is he bracing himself for a long series of future doctoral dissertations, in which aspiring scholars attribute all sorts of unlikely motives and philosophies to Morris?

"That's already happening," he says. "I have read some of those doctoral dissertations, and I know how academia works."

How Morris himself works is a quite different matter. He has programmed two big pieces for the Meany Theater concerts: "Violet Cavern" and the 1993 "Mosaic and United." The former is set to a new jazz score featuring the trio The Bad Plus, whose pianist (Ethan Iverson) was Morris' former music director.

"They have a giant career," Morris explains. "The jazz world is so impoverished right now, but they have a big following."

"Violet Cavern" has a most unusual genesis for Morris, who almost always is inspired by an existing piece of music to make a dance. This time, he began working on the dance first, creating what he calls "a very extended and ornate theme and variations for movement" for 15 dancers. This dance, in seven movements totaling about 50 minutes, inspired The Bad Plus to "propose music that exists because of this dance," as Morris puts it. He discussed with the trio the development of themes that "could have changes rung on them." A musical theme, sometimes hidden, is introduced into every movement in a score that Morris calls "quite dense."

It's also a bit in-your-face.

"The music is very loud and persistent," says Morris, sounding pleased, "and some people think it is anti-musical, but it is not. There are three equal voices, not just the piano with the bass and drums in the background. This is not lounge jazz you can use as background music. I think it's a beautiful piece."

The work "Mosaic and United," for a quintet of dancers, is based on two quartets (No. 3, "Mosaic," and No. 4, "United") by 20th-century composer Henry Cowell.

"I made this dance up when I was working with the White Oak Dance Group," Morris says.

"The Cowell quartets are out of print. You can't just go to Tower Records and buy them, or listen to them 24 hours a day on your iPod. I have one [an iPod] and I like it, but I also like silence. I like the idea that you go to a show and hear music and then it's over. You don't hear it again and again."

"Mosaic and United" employs both aleatory music (in which the performer may choose the sequence of the music) and music based on five beats, which Morris says "isn't hard for our company. A lot of Balanchine's work, especially of Stravinsky, uses five beats and other unusual rhythms. There's a lot of yardage that isn't square."

Flowing pajamalike costumes for "Mosaic and United" are by the renowned designer Isaac Mizrahi, whom Morris has known for a long time.

Morris now is busily planning the Mark Morris Dance Group's 25th-anniversary festivities, which will take place in Brooklyn over a period of three weeks. There'll be "small things, oddities, juvenilia, and big shows, too. And I'm making up a dance or two."

He's also working on a new "Creation du Monde" (music by Darius Milhaud) for Tanglewood; on a new dance set to Stravinsky's Piano Serenade in A; and another new "King Arthur" (by early English composer Henry Purcell) for the English National Opera. This last is particularly good news for the many international fans of Morris' "Dido and Aeneas," inspired by the Purcell opera.

"It's a dance opera," he says of "King Arthur." The original is "a long, boring play with wonderful, wonderful Purcell music."

Bad news for fans of Morris' own dancing: He won't be dancing in the Seattle performances. At 48, he still does a lot of dancing, but mostly in smaller pieces and solos; in Seattle, he will be needed "mainly as a referee." He'll arrive a few days early to be with his mother and sister, who still live in the area.

"Mother's getting old, and she can't remember much," Morris says, "but she's a doll. It will be great to be with her."

Anything else he wants Seattle audiences to know?

"Yes!" Morris replies promptly.

"I am really happy that Peter [Boal] is taking over the Ballet [Pacific Northwest Ballet, whose longtime artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell will retire at the end of the current season]. Peter is the exact right person. Make sure you get that in: 'the exact right person!' "

Melinda Bargreen:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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