Shaking It Up

For someone who's supposedly such a temperamental "bad boy" of modern dance, Mark Morris doesn't seem to take himself very seriously. When asked why he agreed to a Houston Ballet performance of one of his works, the legendary choreographer quips, "Because they asked."

And why wouldn't they ask? Morris has been called "the most successful and influential choreographer alive, and indisputably the most musical," by The New York Times. The dance demigod unveils his Sandpaper Ballet this week in a Houston Ballet spring program that includes James Kudelka's classic The Firebird, a Russian fairy tale set in a colorful Mayan jungle.

Call it ballet for the MTV generation: Experiencing Morris's creations is like watching comic books or TV ads come to life. For Sandpaper, Morris has created a tongue-in-cheek ensemble piece set to '40s and '50s tunes by American composer Leroy Anderson, which includes the Christmas classic "Sleigh Ride."

Morris called on fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to create vivid, colorful costumes in green, blue and white. The costumes form fluid lines when, at the beginning movement, Morris's 25 dancers line up in a perfect cube -- then hop and leap into their pieces, such as "Typewriter," where their bodies mimic typewriter keys.

In the '80s, Morris was considered a revolutionary for employing performers in his Mark Morris Dance Group who looked like regular people. His choreography was often raw and provocative. For example, he was unafraid to pair same-sex dancers for his pieces.

But ballet finally has caught up with his vision. The bad boy has softened. Now Morris, who has created more than 100 dance pieces -- and has a reputation for being demanding and quirky -- is just adamant that his work is performed well. "It's just a dance. That's what I always say," he says. "Of course I want it to be fabulous and thrilling and life-altering and beautiful and satisfying, but after all, come on, it's not like it's a cure for cancer."

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Christie Taylor