Morris' 'Rite' a minor masterpiece

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday June 18, 2013
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The world premiere of Mark Morris' version of le Sacre du Printemps bearing the title Spring Spring Spring was a very big deal. Critics and dance-history scholars came from far and wide, as far away as London, and must have made up a large percentage of the audience, since the usual Berkeley dance venues were closed for retrofitting and the small Hertz Hall had to be pressed into service. Hertz is not a theater, it is "an acoustic concert hall primarily used by the Department of Music," which fortunately does have a stage. It had to be specially rigged for dance, since though it has fabulous acoustics, it has no sprung dance floor, and no grid for hanging lights. But the audience was very lucky �" it was a wonderful event, the dance looked fabulous in there. Tickets were like those at the Kleiner Salzburger Festspielhaus: though they were very expensive, they could not be had.

All of the audience were cognoscenti; the premiere must be understood as a coterie event. Spring Spring Spring begins in the dark. A synthesized version of Stravinsky's famous bassoon melody fills the space: it is clearly the onslaught of a dawn chorus of birdsong, which becomes cacophonous. Then the pianist turns on his light, the bass-fiddle and drummer join in, and they attack the syncopated violent accents of the "Adoration of the Earth." Female dancers dressed like Arcadian shepherds (in the style re-moded by Napoleon, now known as "Empire") enter rapidly. Squads of them fill the stage like schools of fish at a coral reef, each group doing its own folkloric moves and minding its own cohesion, whereupon a line of boys bare-chested and sporting sherbet-colored jeans slice through them in quick-step. Casting their legs out in front of them like birds, they dash through the melee and disappear offstage into the far wings.

This sets the tone for the whole ballet. Stravinsky's score in 1913 was the bridge between the pan-Slavic, folklore-drenched stage of his Ballets Russes roots and the Modernism that, after the onset of World War I, he would come to embrace. Morris' dance is learned modernism, not the pan-Slavic, fin-de-siecle tragedy that Stravinsky envisioned. That vision is maybe best realized by Disney's Fantasia , with dinosaurs battling it out in the la Brea tar pits .

It will doubtless repay study to find the formulae that yielded Morris' geometric complexities. The counterpoint of trajectories gave much interest at first sight. But in the long run, Morris' decision to abandon the libretto's dramatic structure releases each episode into a flattened thing. As in a tribal Bactrian carpet, many repeating, contrasting panels belong together with deep structural integrity, but absorb the attention only when less demanding stimuli fade away.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Morris' Spring Spring Spring at Ojai North. Photo: Peg Skorpinski

The ballet is best seen as the capstone of a larger festival experience, designed for "music tourists" such as go to the Edinburgh, Salzburg, or Bayreuth Festivals. At this, I think it succeeded brilliantly. The Berkeley Ojai North shows were a NorCal outpost of the Ojai Music Festival in Ventura, the whole of which was directed by Mr. Morris, who is such a musical choreographer that many have come to think of him now as essentially a musician. Morris curated Ojai as an homage to the west coast maverick composers Lou Harrison (Seattle and Santa Cruz), Henry Cowell (born in Palo Alto), and John Cage (Seattle and New York). Stravinsky, who though Russian fled the Soviets and settled in Los Angeles, may be considered an honorary senior member of the tribe, much as Marcel Duchamps is an honorary founding member of the New York School of painting.

Starting Wednesday afternoon and running through the weekend, there were concerts from mid-afternoon til late at night. The dance concert under review should be considered a Gesammtkunstwerk, with outstanding musical components. I think of it as a triple bill, including Morris' wonderful dance-settings of Cowell's string quartets Mosaic and United,  and the fabulous music composed by Morris' former music director Ethan Iverson for the jazz trio The Bad Plus, for the great silent movie Salome (Nazimova, 1923),  which screened at 10 p.m. for free.

The movie Salome included the virgin sacrifice, which is crucial to Stravinsky's conception of The Rite of Spring, but which Morris, though he alludes to it throughout his ballet, does not include as an event in his choreography. Salome  therefore contains a tragic climactic structure, culminating in the moment when the palace guards converge on Salome and stab her with their spears, in rhythmic convulsions which Iverson accompanied by throwing his entire body at the piano, attacking it with his elbows spread, and thus creating "sound clusters" covering three octaves. They sounded like bombs going off.