BRUSSLES — THE Th'e^atre de la Monnaie is a typical 19th-century European opera house, perhaps a bit gaudier than some, with lurid pink cherubs and goddesses floating in the ceiling, red flocked wallpaper, red and gold seats, and medallions devoted to famous composers spaced along the scrollwork-covered fronts of the boxes. When Mark Morris comes onstage to bow with his company at the end of a performance - his husky figure clad in work boots, jeans, and a rumpled white shirt, and with his long, frizzy hair - the effect is not merely incongruous but, to the staid audience of Brussels, offensive.
As a hotshot young choreographer in America, Mr. Morris cultivated an outrageous image. With his personal appearance, his offstage behavior, and his deliberately offbeat work, he either shocked or endeared himself to critics and audiences. Even when he wasn't liked, though, he was tolerated. When Monnaie director Gerard Mortier imported Morris and company a year ago to replace longtime resident choreographer Maurice B'ejart, Morris, perhaps naively, saw no reason to moderate his flamboyant, work-centered style.
But American dance politics are Ring-Around-the-Rosie compared to the intrigues and savage competitions of the European opera house. Almost as soon as he arrived, the press drew their swords. Morris was compared unfavorably to B'ejart, though the previous incumbent's stance is very similar to Morris's in principle: anti-classical, democratic, often aggressively ``liberated.''
By some coincidence that neither Morris nor B'ejart can explain, B'ejart's new Ballet Lausanne was booked into the arena-like Cirque Royal this fall, during the same three weeks as Morris's opening program at the Monnaie. Both men deny there is any combat between them, but the aesthetic battle lines were staked out clearly.
Morris began this second season with two dances to various Liebeslieder of Brahms (Op. 65, choreographed in 1982 as ``New Love Song Waltzes'' and Op. 52, a new work called ``Love Song Waltzes''), and ``Wonderland,'' a quintet to a late and an early composition of Arnold Schoenberg (``Music for a Film Sequence,'' 1930, and ``Five Orchestral Pieces,'' 1909). Working against the temptation to put the Brahms pieces back to back, Morris created a breathing space between them with ``Wonderland,'' inviting the audience to see differences in his treatment of the two sets of Liebeslieder.
But European audiences don't consider Morris's work in a class with ballet. His dancers don't project the artificiality and forced glamour people want from ballet, and the anti-Morris factions refuse to believe there might be any other way to dance well.
I sometimes find Morris's movement arbitrary, even as I'm thinking how ingenious his invention is. Much of ``New Love Song Waltzes'' seems to be a deliberate inversion of balletic lightness or interpretive-dance prettiness.
Morris has always argued against sexual stereotyping, and ``Love Song Waltzes'' exploits the possibilities of women lifting women, women carrying men, men supporting other men, not just as a show of strength but as a means of exploring momentum, contact, shape. Morris not only makes a political point, but creates exciting and sometimes beautiful movement. In breaking the sexual rules, he also retrieves the comradely possibilities of group dance. In ``Love Song Waltzes'' there are circle dances, trios, and duets where the partners interchange.
Relationships are the issue again in ``Wonderland.'' This time they are cut off and distorted by the crippling neuroses of early 20th-century urban middle-Europe. The piece, a theatrical character study, owes a lot to Martha Clarke, to German Tanztheater, and to John Kelly's neo-expressionistic piece about Egon Schiele, ``Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte.'' Morris further defies convention by making guest artist Mikhail Baryshnikov an equal of the four other dancers.
Baryshnikov fingers his clothes, shakes his head from side to side. Ruth Davidson, in a blond wig and metallic cocktail dress, moves awkwardly, a tall woman trying to make herself more compact. Olivia Maridjan-Koop is small and fussy, old-maidish. Keith Sabado, wearing glasses, could be Baryshnikov's bookish brother or schoolmate. Rob Besserer is a sadistic giant. They make advances to the others, clutching, reaching out, getting rebuffed.
Across town from Morris's thoughtful, understated work, B'ejart was presenting ``1789 ... et nous,'' the spectacle commissioned by the French government to celebrate the bicentennial of the Republic. Within the first 15 minutes we're treated to a gang of gas-masked trash collectors, 30 small children in peasant costumes, the first of many male virtuoso dances, a walking, clowning string quartet, Robespierre entering through the house on a wire, and more.
``1789...'' is full of inchoate but fetching references to weighty subjects. ``There's no more water!'' a narrator intones, and people bring out small leafless trees in pots, then stare at them sadly. Another speaker pleads for a return to nature, and a character clad in hokey Indian-chief feathers gallops in on a real horse. Forty ``Chinese'' on bicycles ride in circles while a dancer does some sanitized Bharata Natyam - showing that we are all one world.
After two hours of this high-class burlesque, the audience cheers and claps in rhythm and chants for their B'ejart! B'ejart! They've been buying his brand of snake oil for 20 years; no wonder they can't read Morris's message.