Review: Mark Morris' 'Spring' bucks recent 'Rite'

BERKELEY — "The Rite of Spring" is a ballet born of violence. Stravinsky's score unfurls the furious sudden spring of his native St. Petersburg, the sounds of cracking ice on the river Neva being like gunfire. Taken from the scandalous sexuality of Russian folklore, the dance depicts a virgin sacrificed to the savage, ecstatic pleasure of "sages."

We've long ago gotten used to all this, the "Rite" having entered into its second century last month. Orchestral performances over the decades have become ever more driven. Choreographers have upped the shock ante by emphasizing ever-more alarming violence and misogyny. What's left, short of turning the whole bloody affair over to Quentin Tarantino or Lars von Trier?

Instead, we now have Mark Morris' intricately clever, joyful, even classical "Spring, Spring, Spring." It was given its premiere Wednesday night at Ojai North!, a Cal Performances continuation at UC Berkeley of last weekend's Ojai Festival, and it is stunning in its perverse reversal of "Rite of Spring" trends.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

The choreographer, who was also the music director of this year's festival, divides his Mark Morris Dance Group into a quartet of male dancers, a quintet of women and three male-female couples. The men are bare-chested and sport brightly colored tights. The women, in their flowing white gowns, could be nymphs. All the dancers wear garlands of flowers in their hair. Elizabeth Kurtzman designed the costumes that would also work fine for nymphs and satyrs in the Elysium Fields.

As it did at the Ojai Festival last week, jazz trio the Bad Plus played Stravinsky's score in its arrangement for carefully articulated piano (Ethan Iverson), swinging bass (Reid Anderson) and driving drumming (David King) that is straightforward and percussive with a few jazzy embellishments. It's a "Rite" you can shimmy to, and Morris' dancers merrily do that too.

The most curious part of the Bad Plus arrangement is the ballet's Introduction. At Ojai, the trio sat uncomfortably still while an electronic manipulation of Stravinsky at the keyboard was heard over the loudspeakers. Morris begins better, in darkness.

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From the start, this is not a "Rite" compelled by the startling implications to Stravinsky's famous and exceedingly pushy score but is rather a reaction to it. The three groups come and go, sometimes mimicking the music, sometimes playing with it, always listening to Stravinsky.

Women dance their rounds as rounds. The music trills and the men take turns twirling, happily or drunkenly dazed. The Sage's heavy steps are material for the three couples, the men weighed down by the women. Partnering is fluid. The real rite here is the spring, spring, spring in every step, and the understanding that this is music of changes. The beat never stays the same, and neither does the dance.

In other regards, this "Rite" comes across as almost a purification ritual. The Bad Plus is best when it comes to clarifying Stravinsky's rhythmic revolution, Morris takes his cues from that, emphasizing the unpredictable shifts of accent and meter, of pattern. There may be too little frenzy in the "Sacrificial Dance" at the end, but Morris unravels the rhythmic design with a continual sense of illumination. At one point the dancers used hand motions to underscore every unpredictable accent as though they were a company of virtuoso conductors.

At Ojai, Morris had mentioned in a symposium that he had yet at week's end to have finished the final minute of choreography and that the whole thing was done in but three weeks. That may explain why the dancers fell to the ground and flopped like frogs at the final chord. It was, no doubt, an inspiration born of necessity, but I'm willing to accept inspiration wherever it comes from.

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In other aspects, Morris' "Rite" felt at this premiere, if not unfinished, still being worked through in what felt at times a tentative performance. Then again, Morris has been massively over-extended. Last weekend's Ojai Festival was unprecedentedly jam-packed, leaving the choreographer to put the new dance together. Meanwhile the festival continues here through Saturday with many, although not nearly all, of the 37 events at Ojai.

There were grumbles at Ojai that Berkeley got the premiere of "Spring, Spring, Spring," and the original festival itself heard only the Bad Plus' arrangement. The excuse is that Morris' long relationship with Cal Performances is what made his presence possible in the first place.

But Ojai can still take pleasure in being Ojai. Earlier in the evening Wednesday, John Luther Adams' 70-minute percussion piece, "Strange and Sacred Noise," stirred the Faculty Glade outside Hertz, a nice enough spot although a machine rumbled in the distance, but nothing like the strange and sacred scenic locale Ojai offered Adams' own rite.


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