IS MARK MORRIS really the Bad Boy of Contemporary Dance? If you judge him by his wild cascade of curls, unbuttoned approach to interviews and undancerly appetite for beer, the Seattle-born choreographer superficially suits the bill. And surely the controversy generated by Morris and his troupe since their cushy appointment two years ago as resident company of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels has solidified his reputation as a nose-thumbing upstart.
Experience a program of Morris's dances, however, and you might very well wonder why the emphasis is so much on the man rather than his art. Yes, performers do occasionally appear nude in his work, and certainly Morris is one of the more brazen and flamboyant dancers around, but these "excesses" serve as only one facet in a much larger design. Shape, line, spacial configurations, the individual versus the group and -- most important of all -- music are Morris's primary concerns.
Like Paul Taylor -- the choreographer to whom he is compared most frequently -- the equally prolific Morris, 34, makes dances both light and dark, satirical and straightforward. He too delights in all manner of musical styles, setting his pieces to everything from Franz Schubert to Yoko Ono. What sets Morris apart is his unrepentant romanticism, the surge and force of his movement phrases, the celebration of weight and basic humanity that at times harks back to the work of early modern dance pioneers like Isadora Duncan and Doris Humphrey.
In their third Washington appearance in a decade, the choreographer and his outstanding ensemble perform two alternating programs, including the new "Pas de Poisson" to the music of Satie; "Going Away Party," to songs by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; "Gloria," to magnificent choral selections by Vivaldi, and "Behemoth," to no score save the dancers' footsteps and breathing patterns.
Also of note: Chuck Davis, the huge, condor-like teacher and performer who spreads the gospel of African-American dance like nobody else, brings his live-wire troupe to the Publik Playhouse for a celebration of traditional West African dance and music.
And beginning Tuesday, Improvisations Unlimited, the ever youthful, ever imaginative contemporary company in residence at the University of Maryland, offers a program of new and recent works by choreographers Stephanie Skura, Wendy Woodson and Jerry Pearson. They'll also amaze spectators with their trademark improvisational work, which director Meriam Rosen calls simply "The Process."
MONNAIE DANCE GROUP/MARK MORRIS -- Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 2 and 7:30, Sunday at 2 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Call 202/467-4600.
CHUCK DAVIS African-American Dance Ensemble -- Friday at 10 a.m. and noon (reservations required) and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Prince George's Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. Call 301/277-1710.
INPROVISATIONS UNLIMITED -- Tuesday through Nov. 3 at 8 at the EE Studio/Theater, Dance Building, University of Maryland at College Park. Call 301/405-3190.