Setting dance to Beethoven has historically raised a few eyebrows in the dance world. George Balanchine, a great lover of music, went so far as to describe Beethoven’s heavy-sounding music as “unchoreographable” and never once during his prolific career used the composer’s work. Most choreographers seem to have heeded his warning. In 1966, Paul Taylor turned to Beethoven’s late quartets for Orbs, by most accounts a masterpiece, but enjoying even this can be an uphill climb.
So it came as a pleasant shock to watch Mark Morris Dance Group tackle Beethoven and make it seem easily danceable in Morris’s new work A Choral Fantasy, which premiered at BAM in early March. Even more remarkable is that “Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra,”a meditation on the unity of the arts, is as intimidating as any in the Beethoven catalogue. (Many music historians view the work as a precursor to the “Ode to Joy” in his later Symphony No. 9.)
Many Morris works are defined by dualism, and in A Choral Fantasy one finds tension between individual expression and conformity. Inventive movement abounds, but the dancers—dressed tellingly in tight, military-style costumes by Isaac Mizrahi—repeatedly return to rank-and-file marching that depersonalizes them.
Morris also demonstrates his skill at expressing various musical constructs—canon, call-and-response, and accumulation—through movement. In the most brilliant passage, Amber Star Merkens dances alone at center stage. Her solo summons William Smith III and Dallas McMurray, who engage in a playful game of slapping and clapping. Other groups—each larger than the last—emerge one by one at separate corners of the stage as the others freeze, until all four quadrants of the stage are occupied. Then each explodes into action simultaneously, performing unique steps. It’s a feast for the eye.
Earlier in the program, however, Morris didn’t fare so well with a different musical challenge: Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Morris’s commitment to vocal music is admirable, but this dance setting (from 2000) never quite matches the score’s witty heights. It was all too easy to focus on the orchestra pit instead of the stage.
In Saints, Morris draws heavily—too heavily—on folk dancing influences. Performers enter, exit, and dance in chains that quickly become predictable, whereas Stein’s libretto constantly surprises. Wearing Elizabeth Kurtzman’s charming costumes, the dancers frolic with an almost angelic lightness, but this too becomes tiresomely saccharine.
Saints doesn’t add up to much but it nevertheless has its moments. A scene set to Saint Ignatius’s famous aria about “pigeons on the grass” finds six men strutting and flapping their arms, recalling the ornithological studies in Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato.
One should acknowledge, however, that perhaps Saints might have been more satisfying on another night: the flow of the performance was disrupted when dancer Michelle Yard, dancing the principal role of Saint Teresa of Ávila, suffered a calf injury and was forced to withdraw, necessitating a brief pause and a cast change. Until then, Yard had been the evening’s standout performer, transcending the repetitive choreography to make every step new, fresh, and free.