SARASOTA — Mark Morris was obviously in a whimsical mood when he decided to make a dance to music and words by Ivor Cutler, a Scottish eccentric beloved in Great Britain for his songs and verse. Paul McCartney saw him on TV and cast him as a dotty bus driver in Magical Mystery Tour.
A Wooden Tree — the title of one of Cutler's songs — is the latest work by Morris, and it anchored Wednesday's performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group that opened the Ringling International Arts Festival at the Mertz Theatre of the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. To add to the magnitude of the occasion, one of the eight dancers in the piece was Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose New York arts center collaborates with Sarasota's Ringling Museum on the festival.
"I'm going to sing you some of my songs," said Cutler in his froggy voice (on a recording, a rare foray away from live music for Morris) to begin. The score consists of snippets from about a dozen songs or recitations, often accompanied by Cutler on harmonium, and the effect was sublimely gentle and kind-hearted, though the choreography is more theatrical than usual for Morris. In tone, the 25-minute work reminded me of Benjamin Britten's odd comic opera Albert Herring, with some of the inspired nonsense of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake thrown in for good measure.
At 64, Baryshnikov is still a dynamic stage presence, but his role in A Wooden Tree was modest, no doubt meant to show the ballet legend as a mere dancer among dancers, just one of the company. In his cloth cap and vest, he blended with the rest of the dancers, all costumed (by Elizabeth Kurtzman) in rough and ready garb suitable for an old-time English country dance on the village green.
In one segment, however, Baryshnikov transcended the larky style of the piece as he and a woman pondered each other in striking blue lighting (by Michael Chybowski) to a mix of I Love You But I Don't Know What I Mean and Beautiful Cosmos, a moment both desolate and uplifting. Then in Cockadoodledon't, he tossed off a goofy little dance that was totally charming.
A Wooden Tree was a pleasure to see, and it should be a blockbuster when the company performs it in Great Britain, but for U.S. audiences, the Cutler persona is probably a bit elusive.
The rest of the program included Morris mainstays, and their performance was flowingly assured. Canonic 3/4 Studies was a lyrical romp to ballet class piano music by nine dancers. In Silhouettes, Aaron Loux and Dallas McMurray were the exuberant duo (one in pajama top, the other in pajama pants) to music by Richard Cumming that ranged from Rachmaninoff-like grand romance to boogie-woogie in a bravura performance by pianist Colin Fowler.
For the most part, the first three dances on Morris' program were playful — there's a playground quality to his choreography, with much running around in circles and jumping up and down — but the finale, Grand Duo, had an epic feel. Set to Lou Harrison's music for violin (Aaron Boyd) and piano (Fowler), with 14 dancers, it was the one piece that looked sort of cramped on the Mertz's small stage. But the pure brilliance of the movement, especially in the raucous polka at the end, was breathtaking.
The festival runs through Saturday. The Morris Group has performances at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Saturday. (941) 360-7399; ringlingartsfestival.org.
More pops for Tyzik
Jeff Tyzik is one busy conductor. In June, he was named principal pops conductor of the Florida Orchestra, which became the fourth orchestra with a pops program under his baton. He was already pops conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, the Oregon Symphony and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
Now Tyzik has added orchestra No. 5 to his resume. This week, he was announced as the Seattle Symphony's principal pops conductor, succeeding Marvin Hamlisch, who died in August. He signed a three-year contract with Seattle, beginning in the 2013-14 season.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.