Dispatch from Ojai

Mark Morris at the opening Talk at Ojai. Photo by yours truly.
Mark Morris at the opening Talk at Ojai. Photo by yours truly.

Mark Morris is the music director of the Ojai Music Festival this year, which is an anomaly of course, since Morris is not a composer or a conductor or a musician of any kind but rather a choreographer. It is the first time that the sixty-seven-year-old festival has been led by a dancemaker. But then, it also makes perfect sense, since Morris’s dances are made with such close attention to the music that he chooses that some people like to call them “music visualizations.” It is, in part, a derisive term—akin to the accusation of “Mickey Mousing” the music—but one which he, in turn, wholeheartedly embraces. What is wrong with visualizing music, he asks, since music is what makes us want to dance in the first place? At a talk on the first day of the festival, Morris states his manifesto in no uncertain terms: “My dances are music-based, so my life is music based.” Musicians love his work. A pianist friend recently said to me, off the cuff, that Morris is a “musician stuck in a dancer’s brain,” as if the two were musically exclusive.

At Ojai, in the role of chief enchilada, Morris is completely in his element, Pasha-like with a handsome beard and a mane of half-silvery hair, dressed in wrinkly cargo shorts and red socks to match his red polo shirt, a sweater tied jauntily around his broad shoulders like a cape. At fifty-something, he moves with more energy than just about anybody else. He has a literal bounce in his step. His voice is certainly audible above anybody else’s. And he is everywhere at once: at every talk, at every rehearsal, kissing passers-by, sitting in the audience with a satisfied air at the opening concert, a performance by the jazz trio The Bad Plus.

Morris is using the ensemble’s rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for a new dance, entitled Spring, Spring, Spring, premièring at the Ojai North! Festival in Berkeley next week (June 12-15).  Yes, yet another dance set to the Rite of Spring, but, Morris insists—and one almost believes him—that its was in no way inspired by the centenary of Stravinsky’s revolutionary work. “I accidentally forgot it was the one hundredth anniversary,” he says at the talk. Oops! Not only that, but he gave himself only three weeks to make it. “I timed it so it would be an emergency,” he says. He put together three teams of dancers so each group could concentrate on learning one part. (Rite is a daunting forty minutes long.) The rhythms are notoriously difficult to memorize. The dancers will get a lot of help from The Bad Plus’s rendition, which is as crystal-clear as if the band had placed the score under a microscope and tweezered out each of its elements, cleaned off all the gunk, and put it all back together again.

The Bad Plus perform Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at Ojai. Photo by Timothy Norris.
The Bad Plus perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at Ojai. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Morris certainly hasn’t mellowed with age. Opinions fly. “Nijinsky was a terrible choreographer,” he lets rip, à propos of nothing, and this despite the fact that there is almost negligible evidence to go on but a few photographs and sketches and marked-up scores. (The very polite, very engaged audience visibly blanches at this statement, or maybe that’s just my impression.) Nor does Morris suffer from any bouts of false modesty. In answer to the question of why he was chosen for the job of music director of the festival, he says, with total aplomb: “they weren’t looking for a choreographer, they were looking for me.” He’s so outrageous that the outrageousness turns the corner to become endearing. (We’ll see if the good humor lasts through the weekend.)

Such chutzpah—combined with profound musical knowledge—comes in handy at such events as the opening party, where members of his company (lithe and beautiful) mingle with the rest of us (mostly middle aged, at best, and not so lithe). “OK. Form three concentric circles,” he orders the assembled guests, loudly. “Join hands with the people next to you. Now turn to the person on your right, look into their eyes, and greet them. Without irony.” He teaches us a short combination of steps: “toe, heel, toe, heel, now chassé chassé chassé to the right, then chassé chassé chassé to the left. Clap your thighs three times. Hook arms and go around. Then move on to the next person in the circle.” The guests clumsily comply, laughing at their clumsiness or conferring with each other for mutual support. “Stop talking,” Morris scolds, getting a little irritated, “that way maybe you can hear the music, which is what we’re all here for, isn’t it?” He means it, too.

Getting ready to learn the "Pennsylvania Polka" at the opening-night party.
Getting ready to learn the “Pennsylvania Polka” at the opening-night party.

The band begins to play the Pennsylvania Polka, and the human machine rumbles into motion, with a few glitches. Afterwards, we do a waltz. I whisper under my breath to my slightly befuddled partner (a complete stranger): right-two-three, left-two-three, now turn-two-three. He looks grateful. Then his face breaks into a slight smile. He gets it. The music carries us along. We exchange names. As usual, Mark Morris is right. Dancing to the music is simply glorious.