From the opening of Stravinsky’s Frisson, a shiver of excitement ran through the audience assembled in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood for an evening of dance by the Mark Morris Dance Group, with music by Stravinsky and Bach performed by Tanglewood Music Center Fellows and Yo-Yo Ma. Add in costumes designed by Maira Kalman and Isaac Mizrahi, a world première performance, and the result is a stellar example of the interdisciplinary performance so often encountered today in newer music concerts.
The program, given on June 28 and to be repeated on June 29, alternates between music by Igor Stravinsky and J. S. Bach. For the opening piece, Frisson (1985), the music is Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (revised 1947), with twenty-five musicians crowded into the balcony-level choir loft of Ozawa Hall. The entire stage was given over to the dancers, sporting matching grey unitards.
The music sported clean lines and excellent balance for a controlled and clear performance. The dancers offered counterpoint: calm moments of music accompanying active movements of dance, static poses yielding to long choreographed phrases inversely proportionate to the rhythmic structure of Stravinsky’s music. The dance shows influences of Pilobolus, with acrobatic interplay between and across bodies. The dance, like the music, was athletic and lyrical by turns, recalling the collaboration between Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Igor Stravinsky. Morris’s choreography marks the continuing evolution of Stravinsky and modern dance.
Italian Concerto was danced to Bach’s piece by the same name. During the pause between pieces, the musicians left the choir loft and a grand piano arrived downstage right. Pianist Marnie Hauschildt drew out different voices and lines, finally bringing the universe of musical ideas to a satisfying conclusion in the final Presto. The dancers, costumed in bright, monochromatic pants and tops, often literalized the music – their arms that traced arabesques above the keyboard’s arpeggios; the meditative musical opening of the Andante accompanied by a dancer miming a heartbeat; or the strong and definitive opening of the Allegro embodied in the dancers’ fist-raised power salute. The choreography proceeded by feints and jousts, upper and lower body motion proceeding contrariwise in one dancer.
These movements recalled Dutch celllist Anner Bijlsma’s conceit in his book, Bach, the Fencing Master, analyzing the subterfuges and complexities embodied in Bach’s cello suites. At the same time, Mark Morris adds his own feints, with a healthy dose of comedy. The finale draws this piece together into a whole; as the musical ideas coalesce, the dancers string together gestures and phrases from earlier movements. To Bach’s contrapuntal dance the dancers offer their own counterpoint of comedic and serious gestures, physical fragments which take on new meanings by the final Presto.
Stravinsky’s Renard, Histoire burlesque chantée et jouée, again performed by Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center in the choir loft, provides the soundscape and narrative for the world première Renard (set and costumes designed by Maira Kalman), a Tanglewood commission featuring a large chamber ensemble of instrumentalists, cimbalom, and four male voices. Based loosely on a tale of the fox in the henhouse, Stravinsky’s music (words sung in Russian, no translation provided) must surely be a political satire. The program notes state, “Fox tricks Cock. Cat and Goat save Cock. Fox tricks Cock. Cat and Goat kill Fox.” The sung text was longer and clearly more detailed.
The performance sported a wonderfully balanced instrumental ensemble and adept and agile singers whose voices blended into the orchestration and at times served as a textural addition. The cimbalom lent the music a decidedly Eastern-Russian folk element. The music spans a pompous march intimations of Russian orthodox chant, and catchy dance tunes – all in all of about twenty minutes. The set is minimal: a bale of hay, a fence marking the chicken coop and at times delineating the henhouse. The costuming is delightful: hens in 1950s poodle skirts, the three women dancing these parts each in a white t-shirt with “h,” “e,” and “n” on the front; other characters wear solid-colored t-shirts identifying them by the name of the animal they embody split between front and back (“FO” and “X” or “CO” and “CK,” to give two examples). The choreography ranges from chicken-scratch (the hens pecking at food scattered by the fox) to sinuous (the wily fox) to feline (the cat, clawing or bathing itself or padding delicately about the stage). The combination of music and choreography here proceeds more in unison than in counterpoint, the comedic elements in both being highlighted.
After intermission came Falling Down Stairs (1997), choreographed to Bach’s Suite in C, No. 3, for solo cello performed by Yo-Yo Ma (seated downstage right, at times dancers swirling around him). For this piece a set of wooden stairs are used, upstage center. The dancers, costumed by Isaac Mizrahi in jewel-toned velour tunics (some tops with leggings, some knee-length tunics, others floor-length), take their positions on the stairs. The Prelude begins: as the cello descends the C-major scale, the dancers fall down. From this opening descent the music mounts and builds. The fifteen dancers, at times unified and dancing as a corps, other times are divided into smaller groups sharing the stage or alternating on and off stage. The musical tempi were slower and different from any of Ma’s recordings, and this seems designed to fit with the dance movements: these are not the seventeenth-century dance movements of Bach’s suites. The choreography builds off the growing complexity of Bach’s music, yielding a suite of Mark Morris’s own choreographic language. From the simple act of falling down stairs this microcosmic world of music and dance follows.
Entering the hall we were handed an addendum to the program. Tanglewood Fellow Case Scaglione had been announced to conduct music for Stravinsky’s Frisson and Stefan Asbury to conduct Stravinsky’s Renard. Quoting from the addendum, “Due to an unforeseeable visa delay,” Stefan Asbury was unable to conduct Renard and Case Scaglione conducted in his absence. Scaglione is to be commended for his magisterial conducting of both works.
If Tanglewood, by now a venerable fixture on the cultural landscape, is unable to secure visas for visiting artists, we should all be very, very alarmed. Given Asbury’s international conducting profile, I do not know what nationality he claims. His ongoing history with Tanglewood implies that the visa issue has not arisen in the past. In light of this new development, we should all protest most vociferously to our elected officials for this circumscription of the global cultural landscape. Fortunately for all assembled in Ozawa Hall, Case Scaglione rose to the challenge and offered clear direction and cogent readings in both Stravinsky works on the program.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.