With nary a sacrificial virgin or dinosaur in sight, Mark Morris has joined the legions of celebrants wishing a happy 100th birthday to Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with a jaunty, exciting interpretation that may make you forget everything that has gone before.
If Stravinsky’s propulsive score enraged audiences a century ago, causing a riot at its premiere, its re-interpretation by the jazz trio The Bad Plus engendered nothing but delight at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, where Morris’ “Spring, Spring, Spring” was performed as the centerpiece of the annual Ojai North! Festival. Presented by Cal Performances in partnership with the Ojai Music Festival, Ojai North! featured vocal, instrumental and dance performances from contemporary American masters through June 15, with special bows to composers Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell.
It was Cowell who started the Morris Group’s performance with his String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4, beautifully interpreted by the American String Quartet (Peter Winograd, Laurie Carney, Daniel Avshalomov, and Wolfram Koessel). Morris’s 1993 “Mosaic and United” is set on five dancers, moving to this lyrical, highly listenable music, and it is one of the loveliest things he ever has done. The dancers, three women and two men, are barefoot and dressed in colorful, flowing silks by couturier designer Isaac Mizrahi. They thump their heels; limbs tremble like aspen leaves; they crawl slowly across the stage; break into what looks like a goofy folk or tap dance and, near the end, become almost threatening as they advance toward the audience. It doesn’t mean anything except itself and it is gorgeous.
“Spring, Spring, Spring” is similarly abstract but with a consistent thread of birth, beginnings and joy appropriate to its title. Morris’s exuberant choreography is typically innovative and gender-bending, with girls sometimes lifting the boys, dancers seeming to pull plows across the stage and sequences in which everybody seems to be moving like robots. Frequent use of circles gives an air of May Day celebrations with the large ensemble of women dressed in vaguely Greek white dresses, men bare-chested and everybody crowned with floral or leafy circlets.
Of course, it is the music that dominates any “Rite,” and The Bad Plus does Stravinsky proud in an adaptation by its pianist Ethan Iverson. Iverson, along with his band mates Reid Anderson, bass, and David King on the daunting percussion of the piece, manage the music so well that, after a minute or two, you stop missing a full orchestra and just settle in to what can be done with this once-shocking, now-familiar, always-exciting score. With all the musical hoopla surrounding the centennial of its premiere, it is hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the “Rite.” Except maybe a teeny riot or two.