What happens when you shake, stir and allow to mingle a music-savvy choreographer (Mark Morris), two earth-and-occasionally-ear-shattering composers (John Cowell, Igor Stravinsky), a marvelously matched foursome (American String Quartet) and a nimble jazz/pop/avant-garde trio (The Bad Plus)?
You get a mixed drink — and that’s exactly what Cal Performances’ Ojai North! 2013 festival served up on Wednesday night at Hertz Hall. Ojai North! continues through June 15.
The performance came amid a day saturated with sound and sights: a red fish blue fish concert in the campus’s faculty glade preceded; a screening of Salomé with live accompaniment followed. Poised on the first-day precipice of Northern California’s strong-arm extension of Southern California’s annual Ojai Valley music festival, much mention was made of Morris’s position as Music Director. The appointment pivots each year: Morris is the first choreographer to assume the role.
Of course, it’s not the first time he’s mounted a podium and with a career marked by musicality as much as movement, Morris proved he’s uniquely fit for the job. With composers notable as industry change agents whose works tipped and tested music on its own “ear”— Lou Harrison, John Cage, Cowell, Stravinsky, and more — Morris’s directorial selections mirrored his choreographic legacy. Like his dances, their compositions leap, spin, goose-step, jerk, sidle, twist — you get the idea.
Mosaic and United, a 1993 work set to Cowell’s Quartets No. 3 and 4, had the company dressed in costume designer Isaac Mizrahi’s silky, billowing jammers. Their bodies were all angularity, with flexing wrists turning open palms into push-away or cup-and-catch gestures, depending on the arm’s orientation. The choreography was primordial, but not antiquated. A curved torso and bent knee modernized a classical ballet piqué (picked) turn. Lauren Grant’s linear expression, danced to cellist Wolfram Koessel’s exquisitely rendered solo, frankly invited and rejected observation. Fundamental architecture pervaded: a hand-holding line of dancers created a moving wall; skittery temps de fleche (a jump with legs passing in air) and a unison, one-footed adagio sojourn across the stage added organic counterpoint.
As magical as the individual moments were, the overall impression of Mosaic and United was of an unwoven quilt, its marvelous strands and sections laid out, but loose or even missing threads to weave it all together. Part of that may have been due to the stage. Herz Hall offered terrific acoustics— making the musician-oriented move from Zellerbach understandable — but the “lip” on the edge of the dancer’s field of play meant entrances (and especially) exits, were cautious. The drop, from vibrant onstage presence to “now I’m off and don’t notice me,” common in today’s contemporary dance circles, here interrupted the work’s necessary energy and flow. And lesser lighting capabilities did little to sculpt or dramatize the dancers.
The world premiere Spring, Spring, Spring, set to Stravinsky’s much-travelled work, The Rite of Spring, offered a firmer glimpse of Morris’s musical, physical and metaphysical capabilities. In pre-show interviews, he claimed not have known, or cared about, the Rite’s centennial status. The comments were either disingenuous, coming from an artist the media heralds as a modern day music/movement genius, or simply revealed the lingering tendency to make wry, raucous conversation out of repetitive interview questions that earned him a “bad boy” label in the 80’s. Either way, Morris refused to wrap his creation in aged reverence or agonizing, sacrificial ritual. There’s no virgin danced to death; just plenty of killer dancers doing their thing in a work largely held together by the remarkable, reductionist Bad Plus score.
One of the most profound moments arrived in the dark: an archival recording of Stravinsky, playing the opening solo notes, blended with electronic and Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s overlays. Transcribed from a four-hand, rehearsal version, percussionist David King, bassist Reid Anderson and Iverson brought out the work’s wild energy and richly ragged polyrhythms as soon as the lights popped on. If it was impossible to rip apart the sonic atmosphere with a force equal to an orchestra’s, Bad Plus proved their mettle by building multiple, mighty, exotic, and surprisingly exciting platforms.
Riding on the trio’s tide, the dance began with a bacchanalian swirl: bare-chested male dancers dressed in Crayola-colored slacks paraded in quartets or lifted their female counterparts. And the Roman-style dressed women did their share of hoisting too; raising both their partners (literally, as is customary in contemporary dance) and importantly, the work’s pacing, in an all-female quintet. Rocking left to right in cookie cutter position, the dancers launched their supple, explosive bodies into a tight-paced canon, then took the piece to blistering heat with complex diagonals as the men re-entered. Moments later, Morris was fearless in more subtle register as the dancers stood, making art by bouncing a back heel up-and-down, up-and-down. It was all logic and form and craft: but in the hands of Morris, it was fun, funny, formidably ambitious and furiously spontaneous…much like Ojai North!
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