Until you grow up, Morris suggests. The Hard Nut resurrects the original coming-of-age story that traditional ballet versions have subsumed under a sugar high. Growing up in Morris' take is about discovering the human glow and dimension within seeming flatness. The protagonists Marie and Nutcracker find a world that, like an enormous budding flower, opens and opens; the already grown-ups, on the other hand, shrink as often as they grow. All this reveals itself at Christmas. As Ira Glass, producer of the radio show This American Life, once pointed out, "Christmas is the time when everybody is who they normally are, but more so."

Meeting the choreographer in his Berkeley hotel room, I found him both more confrontational and more guarded than his stage persona, which is at once precise and magnanimous. Morris, famous for saying what he thinks, confided straight out what he thought of my kind: "Journalism -- it's kind of a parasite job." Now, though he still wants the public to be nettlesome -- "If you go to see something bad, it's your responsibility to boo or leave" -- he says he's learned to "hate things more silently."

His talk still sounds like a lesson in cutting the crap to me. About how to become a choreographer, Morris says, "If you want to put on a concert, you will. Very often I find people who have the letterhead and the logo and the Web site and the grant, but they forgot that you have to make something up." On the subject of "gay art," he declares: "The special-interestedness of queers is very fashionable right now, and I think it's abhorrent. There was a fabulous Seinfeld where Kramer marches in the Gay Pride parade and he won't wear an AIDS ribbon and these sissy guys beat him up. I'm gay, but it doesn't mean I want to join the club of official gay behavior." He laughs, "I'm against that."

Many iconoclasts are great talkers and lousy listeners, too tuned in to their own "inner voice" to hear you. But when Morris listens, the slight challenge in his eyes and mouth defuses. It's what one would expect from a choreographer who makes dances out of listening. Morris begins his choreography with the music and score, which he studies long before he meets with the troupe to make the dance itself. The way Morris' dancers cluster or separate, how their arms swoosh or ornament, and the dance's ephemeral story and emotional resonance derive wholly from its particular score.

Even The Hard Nut -- based on a story so tired and abused it just begged to be revamped -- was motivated by the score. "The music made me do it," Morris confesses. "It's Tchaikovsky at the peak of his powers as a fabulist and an orchestrator. [But] nobody can listen to it anymore. It's played way too much and danced to badly and used to get you to buy everything you can imagine. The music becomes something you can't even bear to hear, which is one reason I chose to do it. It's actually exquisitely beautiful: It's magic."

During that period when he listens to a score over and over again, is he visualizing the music? "I don't visualize anything!" Morris exclaims. "After studying the score for a long time, I come into the studio. Everybody's waiting to learn something and I announce that I have no ideas. And then we go to work."

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Telling "Tales"
"The Knight's Tale." By Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by J.U. Nicholson. Starring Terry Lamb and Becky Parker. Presented by Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. at the Bethany Methodist Church, 1268 Sanchez (at Clipper), Nov. 21. The company presents "The Nun's Priest's Tale" at various locations Dec. 4-14. Call 491-0818 for details.

The Canterbury Tales were imagined as an oral history -- just a group of travelers gossiping around a series of tavern tables -- so it's easy to see how a theater company might land on the idea, one drunken evening, of presenting them live onstage. But it's one thing to muse about how impressive it would be to get a performer to recite every line of "The Knight's Tale," say, acting out all the story's characters, and it's another thing altogether to find an actor with that kind of memory. But starting in late 1996, a group of actors under the name Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. has been presenting The Complete Canterbury Tales in irregular installments at venues in Berkeley and Marin, starting with "The Knight's Tale," which played in San Francisco for the first time late last month. "The Knight's Tale" gets reprised now and then because it's the first tale and includes a general introduction.

Terry Lamb plays the knight, which is to say he plays the knight playing the Theban brothers Arcite and Palamon, their enemy Theseus, his sister-in-law Emily, and four or five gods from Mount Olympus. In a green tunic and a gray garment knit to look like chain mail, he turns a bare stage with a few medieval props into a setting for an ancient Greek romance involving the brothers' feud for Emily. Arcite and Palamon, defeated noblemen under Theseus' jurisdiction, both fall in love with her while they languish in jail. When they get out, they vie to win her over; the feud climaxes in a battlefield skirmish organized by Theseus. Palamon declares his love for Emily in high-sounding speeches, and dedicates his victory to Venus; Arcite is a lustful dog who dedicates his victory to Mars. On Olympus the two gods argue with Jupiter for their partisans, and Jupiter promises that each brother will "get what he wants" -- so the story becomes a fable about fate and the soul. Chaucer's work has a sanguine good nature that lets him cast his Christian beliefs in any form, even an old pagan story like this, and since his religion isn't mired in its own icons it still feels potent and real.

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