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Mark Morris's dances for `the people'

Mark Morris, the young choreographer from Seattle who has been lionized by the dance press, was busy revolutionizing Boston last month. He presented a world premi`ere with his own company, made a serious ballet, and spoofed modern dance. Not all the works were successful, but some turned conventions upside down while sticking to American dance's tried and true values, form and musicality. The spoof was danced by Concert Dance Company. The ballet was for the Boston Ballet, a company which, in its first year under director Bruce Marks, had leaned heavily on the classics. After the winter season's conventional full-evening story ballets,``Don Quixote'' and ``The Nutcracker,'' Morris's ``Mort Subite'' was a shock.

Where we could usually expect the corps to play peasants, the soloists to be courtiers, and principal dancers royalty, Morris presented us with ``the people.'' Everyone was in khaki -- shorts for the women and pedal pushers for the men. There were no stars. This was a crowd, not a ballet company. They didn't move in unison, but followed each other as if they were figuring out the dance as they went along. There wasn't even a story.

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There was no virtuoso dancing. That's not to say they didn't do anything difficult -- it's just that when they did, not a lot was made of it. At one point, a woman was lifted up so she was prone in the air facing the ceiling. Then she was flipped -- as gently as you'd flip an omelette -- so that she was suddenly diving toward the floor. A conventional choreographer might have had her swoop dramatically downward until her face was just inches from the floor. Not Morris. His ballerina made an arc like a dolphin's leap and quietly stood up. As if to further play it down, Morris had several other twosomes in the group repeat it just as neatly.

Rather than show off stars, this dance made the Boston Ballet look cooperative. The women helped with lifts. They seemed to be hurtling smoothly and silently through some emergency to the compelling, sometimes overwhelming music of Poulenc's ``Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings, and Tympani.''

``Mort Subite,'' despite its formless look as dancers swept across the stage, was as sturdily based on the score as Balanchine's neoclassical ballets. One joke came from a recurring theme. Every time it sounded, dancers hopped forward, threw an arm over their faces, and turned around. If they were coming out of the wings, the turn made them disappear again. When the phrase was played loud, a whole line of dancers strode out of the wings, turned, and vanished. A gag only Poulenc could let you in on.

If the Boston Ballet showed us a revolution, the Mark Morris Dance Group brought us life after the revolution, with the masses, not the Medicis, determining culture. ``Mythologies,'' was a dance trilogy based on essays by 20th-century French intellectual Roland Barthes. ``Soap-Powders and Detergents,'' ``Striptease,'' and ``Championship Wrestling'' sometimes made you want to restore the Sugar Plum Fairy to the throne.

In ``Striptease'' the dancers went through exaggeratedly lewd, sometimes funny bumps and grinds. Nude, they displayed themselves and then suddenly picked up the strewn clothes and left. At that point, they snapped out of character so fast that there was sudden, relieved applause from the audience. What made the piece oppressive was not the dancers' feigned awkwardness or the sleaziness of their routines, but the way they glared at the audience, as if it were our fault they were doing what they were doing. ``Championship Wrestling'' was more interesting because the dancers, while grimacing, grabbing, and pushing each other, were exposing the artifice, stomping on the floor to make a fall look worse or just stomping for emphasis.

In his essays, Barthes critically explored the appeal of each subject. It was difficult to see any comment in these two dances, since they showed striptease and wrestling as different forms of physical brutality, which is hardly news.

``Soap-Powders and Detergents,'' a world premi`ere commissioned by the Boston Dance Umbrella, took its mundane material -- soap commercials -- and gave us something lyrical and heroic. The dancers, dressed in white, looked like clean laundry lying on their backs and rotating arms and legs in an eerily beautiful evocation of the ``prewash'' cycle. Haunting voices sang about Fab, Lava, and Era to Herschel Garfein's original score. A man sang ``We went to Joliet, Illinois, to see if women would give up their Era. We took away their Era, and replaced it with an ordinary detergent. Three weeks later we were back, and what we found surprised us.''

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Some dancers had been holding sheets up to enclose an area. When the chorus sang ``Give us back our Era,'' they whipped the sheets aside to reveal a tableau of women huddled on the floor wringing their hands, raising them imploringly, and holding their heads in desperation. But Morris soon went beyond satire.

To complaints about how bad the wash looked without Era, one woman began an odyssey through sheets held up to dry on a line or twisted and rotated around her as she walked, as if on a treadmill. Finally, as in the commercial, the voice offered her $100 for her Era. Even though she looked like a mummy at this point, having gotten wrapped up in her wash, we could see she was holding out for Era. At the final ``no,'' the sheets fell away. The other dancers formed a stairway with their backs and she walked up it, stood on the shoulders of two men, holding sheets in either hand like banners, and was triumphantly carried off.

The dance, which was always beautiful, took us beyond clever jokes about commercials to a kind of washday Joan of Arc story. It is this dance which disdainers of mass culture should fear, for it takes the lowest-common-denominator medium of TV commercials and finds in it a quest for purity and a heroic moment. Revolutionary, indeed.

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