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London audiences didn't quite know what to make of Mark Morris' Four Saints in Three Actswhen the work premiered there in June. Even though the English National Opera produced the work (and footed most of the bill), Morris had the gall to place the singers on the sidelines. "Is this opera or is this dance?" many London critics demanded. "And can a work be both?"
As ever, Morris cuts to the chase. "It's an opera and it's dance," he scoffed over the telephone one recent morning from his Manhattan apartment. "It's both and it doesn't really matter what you call it much."
Bay Area audiences, blessed by Cal Performance's thrice-yearly presentation of Morris' company, and now the U.S. premiere of Four Saints, are likely to be equally nonplussed by the debate. Morris has long been drawn to the physical immediacy of vocal music and has choreographed many of his best dances to it. His exultant L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato, set to a vocal score by Handel, came to Berkeley in March; his gut-wrenching Dido and Aeneas, set to Purcell's piercing opera, returns to Cal this year alongside Four Saints. Yes, Morris is known for doing mildly (and in the past, not so mildly) controversial things -- but never for the sake of controversy.
"It was the music that drove me," Morris said of Virgil Thomson's spare but celebratory score for Four Saints, set to a libretto by Gertrude Stein and written in 1927. "It's just such gorgeous music. And I've read Stein for years and that piece people know about even if they haven't seen it."
For those who merely know of it, the story is simple, because there isn't much of one. It concerns the 16th-century Spanish saints Teresa and Ignatius, who within the course of the opera meet, cavort, and spiritually merge. The libretto, like the text to L'Allegro, is a series of wonderfully open-ended concepts for Morris to embellish with trademark wit: The moment of ascension to heaven, according to early reports, strongly resembles the velvet-rope selection process you'd see at a nightclub. But Morris contends that Stein's writing -- the oft-repeated "Pigeons in the grass, alas" line notwithstanding -- is far from empty.
"I was surprised that people are still shocked by Gertrude Stein," Morris said. "The more one reads it the more it makes sense -- and it does make sense. What I've done just makes it a complete spectacle."
Aside from a fascination with the human voice, it is this love of spectacle that keeps drawing Morris back to opera. His affection for all things grandiose began during his three-year stint as resident choreographer of Belgium's royal opera house (where he created L'Allegro and Dido) and has carried over into recent years with productions of Rameu's Platee for London's Royal Opera and the New York City Opera. It's part of his delightful high-low appeal, and it's not likely to fade anytime soon, despite reports that he plans to retire his signature large-scale works.
"I like to do big projects on occasion just because I can. I only ever imagined that I would stop doing Dido," Morris said, referring to his star double role as both the long-locked Queen of Carthage and her close-shorn nemesis the Sorceress. "I was tired of it and I wanted to cut my hair and I did. But we gave it a rest and now I use a wig."
Neither does he feel constrained to bring only his large-scale works -- at the expense of his many chamber-sized masterpieces -- to Cal Performances. "At Berkeley I do exactly what I want," he said. "I'm very satisfied there. It's simply a big theater, so I do less chamber work."
The only smaller Mark Morris works you're likely to see in the Bay Area proper are ballets, an area in which Morris has been dabbling extensively. He's created four works for San Francisco Ballet -- the company will perform his 1995 Pacific and premiere a fifth commission in the spring -- and even considered becoming artistic director of the Scottish Ballet. "I chose not to apply seriously for it because I wasn't dropping my company," he said. "I wouldn't be able to pay full attention to their company and I thought I would be strung out and it wouldn't be fair."
In the meantime, his own company began construction on a spacious dance center in Brooklyn slated to open early next year, and dance watchers teased Morris for evolving from a rabble-rouser into an institution. ""Institution' means that we're professional and we pay our bills and have health insurance," Morris said. "Getting a building is erroneously seen as a luxury, when it's a necessity for making dances."
It's not surprising that Morris' first commitment continues to be to his own troupe, widely considered God's gift to turn-of-the-century modern dance.
Why such popularity?
"I guess because I don't like phoniness," he said. "I mean, it's all artificial because it's onstage, but still you can tell in dance when there's huge lies. And I love this new piece. I think it's great. I think it's beautiful."
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