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Mark Morris Unveils New Rite of Spring at Ojai North!

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Mark Morris Dance Group performs Mosaic and United at Cal Performances' Ojai North! Festival (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Transcript of conversation on the way out of Hertz Hall at the end of Cal Performances' Wednesday night presentation of the Mark Morris Dance Group that marked the opening of the exuberantly named Ojai North! Festival:

I hope you know the way back to the car. We made quite a hash out of getting here.

No problem -- I have GPS on my iPhone. You know, one of the things I appreciate most about a Mark Morris performance is the equilibrium between music and dance. Hertz Hall provided the right setting, the intimacy needed to showcase the talents of both groups of artists.

Agreed, though both works tonight were in a class I'd call Morris Minor. More like sketches, or notes on movement scrawled on collections of Post-it notes, both lack the consistent inventiveness, tight structure, and wackiness of his most gripping work, like Grand Duo and L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Several moving moments in both pieces, but ultimately the success of the evening was down to the musicians; the choreography wasn't terribly compelling and the dancing was not bulletproof. The men in particular seemed to struggle with some of the lifts, and both men and women had shaky moments here and there with balances and promenades. I missed the abandon with which I'm used to seeing Mark Morris danced, the elation of the "you didn't think I could dance this but I just did" and the "did you hear that in the music?" for which his dancers are famous. I think we're headed in the wrong direction.

No, see? (waves the iPhone in her face) You follow the blinking blue light until you get to the red light. I missed the abandon, too. Though I thought the dancers in Mosaic and United were well rehearsed and confident, and the movement flowed organically from their bodies. Mosaic drew movement both modest and bold. In the solitary sounds of the music, a plucked violin, the beat of a cello, dancers carved a lonely landscape of isolated elements. Lifeless faces, bodies screaming, then still. United provided more communal revelry. The boisterous folk dancing of the male dancers was particularly impressive as they took the jig to a whole new level.

Loved the men's United jig! And those silk pyjamas by Isaac Mizrahi added a playful touch to the enigmatic proceedings onstage. You know, Morris claims to be uninterested in the provenance of movement, absorbing what he likes and regurgitating it to splendid effect, like a spider that consumes other insects for protein then spins magical silk webs of intricate design and varied purpose, texture and tensile strength. The audience takes pleasure, however, not just in the bursts of beauty but in the many allusions and motifs - in Mosaic and United, for example, the religious overtones in the repeated lifting of cupped hands to the sky and in the stiff-armed crucifix posture, both in lifts and unsupported. The perfumes of Thai and Indian classical dance that waft from certain elegant spirals of the hands and heel-toe footwork. Poses that remind us of Martha Graham's Lamentations, Ruth St. Denis' "exotic" use of the arms and upper body, Nijinsky's erotic, androgynous Faune. And that slow, heavy crawl along the floor with bowed head and articulated spine that echoes the most poignant moments in Paul Taylor's Esplanade. But these allusions and motifs, though fascinating, don't add up to much in the end. I think you're holding the phone upside down.

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Mark Morris Dance Group performs Spring, Spring, Spring at Cal Performances' Ojai North! Festival (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

It doesn't matter how you hold the phone! Well, The Bad Plus certainly set Spring, Spring, Spring afire.

Yeah, their jazz interpretation of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring rocked the house. From where I was sitting at far stage left, I did not have as good a view of the trio as you did, Leigh, but I could tell David King was having a high old time on drums and cymbals, inventing new ways to simulate Stravinsky's madly shifting timbres and disjointed rhythms, and Ethan Iverson should have been wearing a welder's mask to protect himself from the sparks shooting off the piano keys.

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The Bad Plus at Ojai North! at Cal Performances (Photo: Cameron Wittig)

I loved how, after that eerie, almost spiritual introduction that superimposed some electronic effects over a recording of Stravinsky on piano, Iverson's live piano pierced the darkness and the heartbeat of Reid Anderson's bass led us into Morris's Dionysian jam. Floral wreaths adorned the dancers' heads and vibrant oranges, reds, blues and yellows clothed the men from the waist down. The women's dresses comparatively fell flat. Muted smocks of yellow and gray overwhelmed their bodies and disrupted the flow of the movement.

I thought those floral wreaths for the women and green leafy garlands for the men looked silly. Though if the movement had been more ironic, they might have worked. The costuming sent mixed signals: colorful jeans made a casual contemporary statement for the men; the washed-out cocktail dresses that billowed unattractively at the waist looked like Diane von Furstenberg channeling Isadora Duncan.

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Mark Morris Dance Group performs Spring, Spring, Spring at Cal Performances' Ojai North! Festival (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

There was a disconnect, however, between the dancing and the music. Did you notice the frequently rushed movement that led to awkward hesitations? The heavy bass was met with arrested hip movements in what was supposed to be a mambo, or a salsa. This may have been intentional, deliberately stunted movement. But the disconnect I felt throughout seemed to be from lack of rehearsal with the musicians, because the tempo and metre were so tricky and constantly changing and they hadn't figured out the points of adjustments well.

Sounds like the problem your GPS is having finding my car. Maybe I should have scattered a trail of peanut M&M's on the way here instead of eating them. Speaking of trails, was there a narrative to SpringX3? I thought there were allusions to the original libretto - though Morris claims to have ignored it. Especially in the first half, the Adoration of the Earth, where Morris mimics Nijinsky's original formations, like the concentric circles of adolescent girls and boys.

At first I thought it was some kind of mating ritual.

(groaning) Surely not like the R-rated versions of the Rite by Pina Bausch or Maurice Béjart?

Oh no! Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was based on a 'primitive' tale of a sacrificial virgin offered to the gods to ensure fertility and harvest. In Morris' choreography I saw partners alternately trying to prevent the other from what seemed to be impending sacrifice. There was no designated virgin. Everyone was at risk. They did try to save each other, though one man eventually fell. I think he may have been resuscitated, however.

Good old deus ex machina. I loved that episode: three couples advancing downstage on the diagonal, the woman in the middle leading her partner, who stumbles and falls. Which did not appear to distress or deter her, as she stays focused on some mysterious point on the horizon. Meanwhile the other two couples are spinning around with linked arms in what seems at first a lighthearted game, but they pick up speed and a sense of desperation, as if trapped in the whirl.

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Mark Morris Dance Group performs Spring, Spring, Spring at Cal Performances, as part of the Ojai North! Festival (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

There were some gorgeous moments: a brief pas de deux in which a dancer slowly arched back onto her partner's back as he crawled on hands and feet into the darkness. A spritely Pan frolicking in the leaves. There were rhythmic spirals, lustful drumming, broken circles and woven chains. Grabbing on to the jazz as a means of transforming folk dance elements into 1960's British mod, mambo and salsa, with that playful magic that Morris wields so cleverly. Perhaps truer to Stravinsky's vision of the Rite than many others, Morris created a playground of musical and movement fusion, with space for reverence, contemplation, and sheer fun.

I did love the variation for four men toward the end -- powerful movements, yet very stylized, the embodiment of the all-American athlete-satyr! But I thought his vocabulary for the most part was leaden, curiously at odds with The Bad Plus' highly charged and sophisticated rendering of Stravinsky. Much time was spent traveling down long diagonals with endless hitchkicks, some turning, both supported and unsupported. Lots of assisted soubresauts in which the women pop straight up into the air, the men hold their waists and set them down a few inches away (as if the women could not have traveled there on their own?) Nods to Jerome Robbins' West Side Story, with dancers posed in a row, lunging forward on one leg, coolly popping one heel up and down. Lots of flailing around, not in a scandalous vein, more in allusion to the "antidance" movement of the 1960's in America. My gaze kept wandering to "the pit," where drummer David King was busy caressing the edges of a cymbal with a drumstick, Reid Anderson was manhandling the bass, and Ethan Iverson kept leaping up from the piano bench - all rather more exciting than what was going on onstage. The cultured Berkeley crowd, resplendent in their natural fibers and tribal jewelry, clearly did not agree with me and gave Morris' world premiere a standing ovation. Oh, bravo for finding the car at last.

I'm not going to another show with you unless you hire a car and driver. Your sense of direction is terrible.

(Sighing) Not my fault -- Google needs to come up with a better GPS!

Former ballerina Leigh Donlan trained in Russian technique and a variety of folk and modern dance techniques, was Children's Ballet Mistress at the Washington School of Ballet, Director of the Athenaeum School of Ballet, and now teaches and writes about dance in the San Francisco Bay Area. She worries about complacency and how we teach our children. Carla Escoda teaches ballet in San Francisco and Sausalito, and writes about dance and theatre. She worries about the lack of oversight over the financial services industry, and what she is going to do with her new Google Glass.