Tell Mark Morris he's fat and he'll readily admit it. Remark that he's unfit for a man pushing 50 and he has no quarrel with that. But suggest that he's become the choreographer he is because he lacks the ideal dancer's body, and he goes dangerously quiet and the pale eyes start to blaze.
"So just what is the ideal dancer's body? If you're talking about a white girl who weighs 110 pounds and who's been wearing pink since birth you're right. And if you're talking about some Russian nine-year-old kid whose X-rays have made it past the Bolshoi selection committee then you're right again. But if you're talking about people who dance and are great artists, like myself, then you're talking about the whole rest of the world whose culture isn't Euro-centric. I'm particularly offended by that question. You can criticise someone for not being able to dance. But you can't say they can't dance just because they're ugly or have big tits. For me the ideal dancer's body is a racist, sexist and ageist notion that I reject."
At this point the interviewer has a choice: back out of the room mumbling apologies, or sit and take the flak. Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group have grown accustomed to this sort of tongue-lashing, and many have stuck with him for 16, 17 years. Now the singers at English National Opera, enrolled on a joint project with his dancers to realise Henry Purcell's opera King Arthur, are also getting a taste of his temper. "That is dangerous, unprofessional, and inconsiderate!" he barks at some hapless individual as he marches about a Coliseum stage rehearsal in his trademark shorts and pashmina. Yet the singers seem to love him too.
"One reason the singers and I get along is that I'm honest with them and very direct," he says, the tantrum over. "I'll tell them you're late, or you're flat, or let's do that again it was bad. And I direct them very specifically and they trust me that it will work. What happens with other directors of opera is that they don't direct every step. There'll be a stretch of music to fill and the singers need to get from A to B so they kind of waft there with a look on their face as if to say, 'Isn't this beautiful music? Isn't it lovely here in opera-land?' Well no, I don't think it is. What's wrong with just standing and singing? Singers tend to feel very exposed, so they think they need to look at a flower, or throw themselves against a wall, or scratch their chin or something. But for me that's just weird. I do believe in fantasy, but everything must have a reason, and it has to be direct."
This decisiveness applies equally to Morris's way with a text. Purcell's "dramatick opera" of 1691 originally included a large quantity of spoken rhymed couplets written by Dryden. It was virtually a verse-play with a musical pageant attached, whose songs commented on aspects of the story - love, honour, death. Morris considers Dryden's verse over-long and boring, "not useful in any way at all", and has ditched it entirely, which also - somewhat bizarrely - cuts out King Arthur the character. "But we keep a gesture to him on stage," says Morris. Thus, the great saviour king of legend takes the form of a props-cupboard crown. It appears in a different place in every scene, at one point perched atop an American fridge-freezer, from inside which a frost-bitten baritone sings of the cooling of ardour. As a director's note warns tersely in the ENO programme, for the benefit of anyone expecting olde worlde masque: "The setting is the stage. The time is now. The performers are themselves."
Performers not being themselves is a thing Mark Morris hates more than almost anything - even more than journalists who cast aspersions on his dancing. The most frequent adjective applied to the MMDG look is "natural". It's said that its dancers "look like real people". This is partly explained by the fact that Morris favours a very mixed company in terms of age, height and body type (he firmly believes people dance better when mature), but it's also down to what he gets them to do. When he mentions with pride that his dancers very seldom suffer injuries, I suggest it might be because the moves they perform are not very risky.
"That's what it looks like," he shoots back, a touch defensive. "But anything done well looks natural. Technically, it's extremely challenging. Every year I audition hundreds of people and very few of them can do it. The co-ordination is tricky, musically it's very specific, and I don't just use a flexed foot or a pointed foot but many gradations between. It's amazing how many people I consider to be good dancers just can't do my work. There's virtuosity in it, but it's hidden.
"You say they look like real people," he goes on, revving up to what threatens to be another rant. "That's because they are real people. And guess what, so is Swan Number 28, but she's never read a book without pictures! I'm passionately against the infantilisation of the ballet industry. Just because something's old, doesn't mean it's good. Just because it's been done that way for 400 years, doesn't make it worth perpetuating. I adore the notions and traditions of classical ballet artistically, but not physically and not socially. Its habit of treating dancers as disposable and interchangeable is very distressing and it doesn't make the work good. It makes it cold, and it makes it scared. And if people dance scared, that's when they get hurt. Believe me, I'm not a hippy and my company is not a commune. I'm the director and I run the show. Like with this production: I've been thinking about King Arthur for 10 or 12 years and I'm not about to say to these people, is everybody OK with that? It's about my personal aesthetic and that's what I've been hired for."
Born and brought up in Seattle, Mark Morris was an unusually focused child. Though there was no tradition of dance in his family, or parental urging, he devoted his adolescent years to after-school classes in ballet and flamenco, and while still in his teens joined a semi-professional Balkan troupe. He took his ballet to a higher level studying in New York (when he was indeed beautifully streamlined), and in the late Seventies danced with several of the modern dance companies that were springing up in that city. In 1980, aged just 24, he assembled a bunch of friends to form the Mark Morris Dance Group, rejecting the cerebral aesthetic of the modernists and embracing a joyous, communal style based on traditional circle and line dances, and highly readable gesture.
It was all done on a shoestring, but Morris's dances had impact. Their chunky, full-blooded groundedness (drawn partly from his Balkan troupe experiences) were in stark contrast to abstract norms of the time - Merce Cunningham and his lofty silences, Trisha Brown scaling the outsides of buildings. They also used music - and what music! Anything and everything from Brahms to Harry Partch, and from Vivaldi to Yoko Ono to Indian ragas to Thai pop. While the rest of the dance world was matt black, Morris was a riot of colour.
His big break, when it came, however, was a far from positive experience. Word of Morris as "the Mozart of American modern dance" had spread to Europe, and he was invited to install his troupe at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, with a lavishly equipped opera house, full orchestra and vast budget at his disposal. The snag was the previous incumbent: the adored Maurice Béjart, whose Gallic, ballet-based extravaganzas were held by the Belgian public to be the ultimate in late-20th-century theatre art.
The Belgian press had it in for Morris even before he arrived, and the public simply didn't get him. This wild-haired, hard-swearing beer-drinker didn't fit their picture of a choreographic genius, and his work had none of the art-on-sleeve quality they were used to. Morris and his dancers were miserable. His drinking and swearing grew more public and more extravagant. The situation was critical. Yet he remained sane enough to see Brussels as once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and plunged into the creation of large-scale works that, remarkably, overflowed with his trademark exuberance. The Hard Nut was a surface-kitsch but ultimately heartfelt response to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. But before it, in 1988, came L'Allegro, a lavish two-hour setting of a little-known oratorio by Handel, which has since clocked up more than two-dozen seasons around the world and is considered by many the most significant modern dance work of the last 30 years.
L'Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, to give it its full title, with words by Milton and allusions to imagery by William Blake, was eventually Morris's passport to London, staged - to ecstatic reviews - at the Coliseum first in 1997 and again in 2000. Unlike the Belgians, British audiences took Morris's work to their hearts. Its clarity, inventiveness and pictorial directness struck them as a heaven-made match with Handel's music, and they loved the way it tracked Milton's rich pastoral verse to the letter. Dancers of either sex - often deliberately cross-cast - assumed the roles of giantesses, sailors or larks. As dancers crouched to represent bushes and trees, a passing pack of hounds paused to cock a leg on them.
On the face of it, the King Arthur project looks like an attempt to repeat that formula. An early English composer setting the lyrics of an English poet, the ENO chorus and orchestra in the pit under the baton of Jane Glover and the Mark Morris Dance Group on stage. What's more, the sets, costume and lighting are by the same team as L'Allegro's 18 years before. But Morris promises this will be very different. L'Allegro, he points out, was done on the kind of Eighties European budget that just doesn't exist any more. And this time he's put the vocal soloists on stage. In other words, he's asking them to move.
"I'm not interested in singers dancing or dancers singing," he says. "It's not my intention to make people do what they can't do. The point is to get the singers to sing great. Staging is something I think should be musical anyway - and it often isn't in opera production - so all I've done is direct very specifically, and there are some things where, if the singers can handle it, they join in some stuff. We end up sharing responsibility."
Practically, this has meant the seven British singers spending a fortnight with Morris in his state-of-the-art Brooklyn studios - a lot easier and cheaper than flying 30 dancers the other way. Emotionally, by all accounts, this has been an adventure and a revelation for the singers, all seven returning fired up by Morris's approach. No doubt, too, they now feel a little more inured to the prospect of appearing a) in a pale pink sailor suit, b) in an insect costume or c) inside a fridge. Since the dancers on stage with them will be randomly arrayed in aviator goggles, Viking helmets, Cavalier plumes and even the odd pointy Guinevere hat, this is pretty much par for the course.
Again, there will be walks and runs in daisy chains and circles - the Mark Morris Dance Group, and now singers, too, taking hands in an act of communing that, for this director, is what it's all about. There will be a 12-man maypole sequence, and the eagle-eyed may spot the odd bourrée from old Provence, or even an ancient step-hop form called schottish. But by and large, Morris rarely makes direct quotation of anything. The dances come out of his head and his extraordinarily wide experience - of mass traditional dance-ins in remote parts of South-Western America, to expressions of community from Thrace to Southern Asia.
"I do circles, but so does everybody else in the world, don't they? I don't mean in Western concert dance, which I think is the least interesting kind of dance, but in almost every other kind. I find lines and circles everywhere. It's about community, and it's also fundamentally about co-operation. Since the beginning of time, as soon as everyone stopped trying to kill each other, they held hands in a circle. With the obvious exception of the various classical forms of dance in the world, dance is nearly always in circles."
For a moment Morris stops to admire the symmetry of this thought. " ...With people, not at people, d'you see?"
'King Arthur' opens tomorrow at the Coliseum, London WC2 and runs until 8 July. The last two performances of 'Nixon in China', also with choreography by Mark Morris, will be on 29 June and 6 July. Box office: 0870 145 0200. Booking online at www.eno.orgReuse content