Ojai North Mark Morris’s adaptation of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” with its dancers dressed as devotees of alternative cultures, had its world debut at the University of California, Berkeley, last week.
BERKELEY, Calif. — Mark Morris, the first dance figure to be artistic director of the annual Ojai Festival, has chosen a repertory that largely emphasizes American composers: notably, Henry Cowell, John Cage and Lou Harrison. In Ojai, Calif., Mr. Morris’s dancers performed a selection of the works he has made to their music over the decades; he also conducted concerts.
But the one new dance he created — for the second part of the festival, known as Ojai North and occurring on the University of California campus here — was to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” This piece, “Spring, Spring, Spring,” had its world premiere on Wednesday at Hertz Hall. On Thursday, in a public interview with the writer Wendy Lesser before the second performance, he said that it was an accident he had turned to this score on the occasion of its centenary. He knew and wanted to collaborate with the jazz trio the Bad Plus, whose pianist, Ethan Iverson, used to be his musical director. The trio first performed “On Sacred Ground,” its jazz adaptation of “Rite,” two years ago and played it in concert on the first day of the main Ojai Festival, on June 6.
At the performances of the new dance, the Bad Plus played its version on the Hertz Hall audience’s left-hand side. The jazz rendition makes few departures from Stravinsky’s score; in most respects it’s an electrifying and remarkably close transcription. There are several hair-raising effects: the bassist Reid Anderson plays pizzicato trills that sound like a transposed balalaika; David King, percussionist, produces high-squeaking hums by stroking slow circles around the surface of his cymbal; and on piano Mr. Iverson isolates separate ideas, sonorities and rhythms in his left and right hands as if he were at least two instrumentalists.
The music begins with a five-minute recorded overture, played in complete darkness. Then lights suddenly come on; the Bad Plus, live, continues the score, and the dancers take the stage. The music concludes with not Stravinsky’s usual brisk anticlimax but with a more prolonged suggestion of chaos, a quotation from the trio’s own “Physical Cities.”
Mr. Morris’s dance begins to give us a latter-day American answer to the score’s original Russian primitivist scenario. Barefoot, his dancers are dressed (by Elizabeth Kurtzman) to look like Californian devotees of alternative cultures. The women, wearing flower garlands in their hair and two-toned (white and saffron) calf-length smocks, might be followers of Isadora Duncan (who came from the Bay Area) and 1960s flower power. The men, bare-chested in brightly colored jeans with vine leaves in their hair, might be Berkeley student rebels of the 1960s. Mr. Morris, bearded, wore vine leaves in his hair and red clothes when he took bows.
Yet these Dionysiac suggestions are kept in bizarrely firm Apollonian check by Mr. Morris’s virtually plotless choreography. This is a far less violent work — less primitivist, too — than his 1993 Lou Harrison “Grand Duo” (which seems to depict both neurological turmoil and rites of an ancient tribe) or the witches’ coven of his “Dido and Aeneas.” The original “Rite” scenario is of a ritual that builds to a chosen maiden dancing herself to death; most other versions have featured aspects of violence, whether self-harming, social, biological or sexual. In “Spring, Spring, Spring,” however, nobody dies or suffers. Nobody loses control or seems even remotely agitated.
Mr. Morris uses 15 dancers, deploying them largely in three teams — four men; five women and three male-female couples. Various geometries develop. Though the social units sometimes merge, this occurs without real stress. When groups move in different meters at the same time, the stage picture remains one of harmony: a pattern that easily contains divergent impulses.
The image of greatest tension is also the one of greatest concord. Facing front, the three lines stand close together. Arms and torsos bend to and fro so that the lines intermesh like an impersonal mechanism. But this is not the harsh implacable machine of Nijinska’s 1923 Stravinsky ballet, “Les Noces”; it’s more like a beautiful loom.
At the end the dancers turn to us, almost as if ready to take bows. Instead, as the Bad Plus version of the music ends on its brooding low cacophony, they sink to the floor in squatting positions (each with one leg extended): a picture of deflation, without teams or pattern or purpose. It’s so odd an anticlimax that, as the lights fell, the first audience sound after the second performance was a single laugh — “Ha!”
More than any other choreographer today, Mr. Morris loves to stud a work with repeated movement motifs. Those here include jumps on the spot in which the dancers jut their heads forward at the apex, and various flattened sideways walks in the idiom of Nijinsky’s 1912 “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune.” You can’t miss these, but it’s hard to know what points Mr. Morris hopes to make about the music with them. And it’s hard to say how “Spring, Spring, Spring” adds up. It’s the most contained response to Stravinsky’s “Rite” I’ve ever seen.
Far more rewarding in both Berkeley performances was the 20-year-old work that preceded it, Mr. Morris’s “Mosaic and United” (1993). This dance quintet, set to — and taking its title from — Mr. Cowell’s string quartets No. 3 and 4 (1935 and 1936), was accompanied by the American String Quartet, playing — superbly — on the audience’s right. Here is a work in which Mr. Morris’s motifs, rhythms and structures fall into perfect balance.
Movement and music often work in separate meters and formats, but in a harmony in which sight and sound deepen each other. The motifs are haunting — as when a dancer looks fixedly up at one wrist while swinging the other arm behind him — like clues in a mystery story.