Edinburgh Festival: A bit of rough, a bit of smooth: In America they adore him, in Belgium they abhor him. In Britain, only the Scottish get to see him. Judith Mackrell on Mark Morris, a dance enigma

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The Independent Culture
Who is Mark Morris, what is he? In England he's certainly a bit of an enigma. Though dance fans south of the border can't help but know his name - he's widely touted, in America and parts of Europe, as the most important choreographer of his generation - the last time they saw his company was in 1985, when he was just starting his career. So, for many, the Morris mystique has been sustained only by a couple of TV programmes, a recent biography, and by rumours two years ago surrounding his possible appointment as associate choregrapher with London Contemporary Dance Theatre. These negotiations, unluckily for the English, came to nothing.

During this time, interest was also sustained by press reports of his residency at the Monnaie Opera House in Brussels (1988-91), which promoted an intriguingly lurid image of Morris. With his luxuriant curls and flamboyant behaviour, Morris became an interesting item for the staid Belgian press, while his style of choreography mortified mainstream Belgian taste. He also regularly hit the headlines with his tactless remarks - one time insulting the Belgian queen's hair- do, another time describing Brussels as racist, sexist and homophobic. The company's general manager used to complain that he felt, 'like the man who walks around with the shovel behind the elephant'.

Yet around that period, Morris made a string of wonderful dances, a few of which have been seen in England in peformances by American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov's White Oak Project and LCDT. As with any choreographer, though, the work has to be seen on Morris's own dancers to come fully alive. In Britain, this privilege has been reserved for Edinburgh, where for the last two years tickets for their shows have been among the hottest in the festival. This summer, Morris's most sublime work, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, is another sell-out.

So what is it that makes fans travel hundreds of miles, that impresses writers like Susan Sontag, composers like John Adams, and some of the world's pickiest critics? He has his detractors, of course - some of the avant-garde dismiss him as old-fashioned, certain classicists find him eccentric. But for those who love Morris's work it's an affair of the heart as well as the head.

Part of its power lies in its frank passion - generous, even shocking after the cool abstraction which dominated dance in the 1970s. In his Dido and Aeneas the tragedy of Dido's heartbreak is writ shiveringly large. In L'Allegro the sections of Utopian optmimisn literally bound with joy. The work's appeal is also the 'dancerliness' of its movement - rare in the recent climate of physical theatre. His dancers stitch their way through rythmically sprung footwork, carve the space in lavish curves, sculpt their bodies into arresting patterns and pictures. Above all, they move to music.

After Merce Cunningham took the revolutionary step of untying the knot between dance and music, choreographers have increasingly used scores as a kind of disconnected sound world. Until recently you'd be as unlikely to find radically minded choreographers making intricate dance to complex music as you would be to see a floral watercolour in an exhibition by Damien Hirst. Yet Morris has worked mostly in loving symbiosis with his scores.

He once said he learnt more about choreography from favourite baroque composers like Handel than from anywhere else, 'the recapitulations, retrogrades, canons, they're beautiful, beautiful things that are just automatically interesting dance'. He is an avidly musical choreographer, but his tastes range widely from Bach to Schoenberg, from Bombay film music to Michelle Shocked. And this eclecticism is reflected in the varied sources of his choreography.

Morris's training is one of the strangest in the business. He took flamenco classes as a child in Seattle, moved on to ballet, joined a hippie Eastern European folk troupe, auditioned for Twyla Tharp and ended up dancing with a variety of modern and classical dance companies. You'll see the honed musical logic of Balanchine alongside the blithe simplicity of a folk motif or the muscular angularity of 1930s modern dance.

You'll also find a sensibility so complex that the simplest dance ideas will seem surprising and fresh. One of the most commented-on features of Morris's work is its overriding of gender difference. He has big women and small men in his company, who can all dance delicately or roughly. Morris is himself famous for portraying women - his Dido has a grandeur, a regal pride that takes his performance way beyond drag.

At one extreme, his material is abrasive and crude. Dido's transcendent view of sex is mocked by the Sorceress (also played by Morris), who masturbates blatantly during an orgy scene, then cleans off her hand with an unsettlingly casual wipe. At another, it is downright beautiful. In New Love Song Waltzes the movement unfurls down a line of leaping, rolling bodies with the ease and exhilaration of flying - like dance you might do in a dream. The work can be nave in its sentiment, bleak in its realism, it can be slangy or classical, outrageous or calm. But those who can't afford the journey to Edinburgh this summer needn't despair. Plans are afoot for an English tour next year.

(Photograph omitted)