Even Mikhail Baryshnikov was curious to stop by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Thursday March 1st to the witness the world premiere of Mark Morris’ A Choral Fantasy. The work sets movement to the score of Beethoven’s Fantasy in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80. He paired the piece along with his earlier adaptation of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts with music by Virgil Thomson and words by Gertrude Stein. In both Fantasy and Four Saints, Morris showed his knack for crafting long-form dance pieces with clearly delineated narratives that never become trite or tired.

Mark Morris Dance Group; © Katsuyoshi Tanaka
Mark Morris Dance Group;
© Katsuyoshi Tanaka

Four Saints offers charming portraits of two figures from the Spanish Counter-Reformation: St. Teresa and St. Ignatius. St. Teresa is a particularly fascinating figure, a nun, author, and mystic, who was famously immortalized in stone by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in his The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Though she has interested poets, philosophers and painters for centuries, interest in St. Teresa was rekindled in the early 20th century by feminist authors such as Stein and Simone de Beauvoir.

Though Thomson’s neoclassical score to Four Saints contains memorable moments, the true charm of the opera comes from the witty words of Stein. Her text relies heavily on repetition to the point that syntax and semantic meaning almost begin to break down. The first line, for example, “To know to know to love her so,” captures the type of playful prattle that children make, and embodies the exuberant affect of Morris’ choreography.

Michelle Yard performed the role of St. Teresa while Samuel Black performed St. Ignatius, the male lead. Yard gave perhaps the most memorable performance all evening. While plenty could be said about her physical beauty, strength and agility, what is most remarkable about Yard is the quiet exuberance and gracefully humility with which she performs. Indeed, Yard is almost saintly in her selfless generosity as an artist.

The dance maintained fairly strict gender divisions, with female and male ensembles accompanying Yard and Black respectively throughout the performance. This strict hetero-normative division of “stage couples” is unusual for Morris, though it contributed to the folk-like character of the work overall. The pastoral atmosphere was underscored by Maira Kalman’s sets – abstract representations of the Spanish countryside.

Four Saints, mock-epic in scope, almost dwarfed the premiere of Morris’ A Choral Fantasy, a mere twenty minutes in length. But what the Fantasy lacks in size, it makes up for in majesty. The piece begins with a grandiloquent Adagio for the piano solo, followed by a many-sectioned Finale. Typically for his style, Morris realizes certain structural elements of the score through his choreography; assigning certain dancers movement to correspond with motion in a particular instrumental line. In some ways, the formal elegance of Morris’ Fantasy was reminiscent of Balanchine; his influence on Morris’ style is obvious.

What is truly ‘Mark Morris’ about this piece is not how his movement mirrors music. In one section of Beethoven’s score when two instruments are in dialogue, Morris stages two male dancers down stage left, playing child-like clapping games together. This simple movement is quickly spun out in variation, much like Beethoven’s music. Morris’ own virtuosic ability to transform something everyday into something artistic is part of what allows him to connect to audiences so immediately and so deeply.

Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes for the Fantasy must not go unmentioned. Mizrahi, a fashion icon, has collaborated for Mark Morris on several productions with the Mark Morris Dance Group, as well as on Morris’ acclaimed Met production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. For Thursday’s premiere, Mizrahi’s designs referenced the martial quality of the music and much of Morris’ movement – it was almost as if Mizrahi had been asked to design the uniform for the Brooklyn Hipster Militia using only the colors dark green and gold. Regardless of whether or not Mizrahi’s designs were a success unto themselves, Morris should be commended for breaking down barriers between the sister arts, and encouraging exchanges between the worlds of fashion and classical music, dance, and opera. It’s all art, after all, whether you wear it, sing about it, or hang it on a wall. The message is the message, not the medium.

What added significantly to the excitement of Thursday evening was the musical performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and the Trinity Choir. Laura Mercado-Wright’s voice blossomed most beautifully in the garden of green singers. Mercado-Wright sang St. Teresa II in Four Saints, and her distinct timbre managed to distinguish her among an impressive group of fresh-faced soloists and two small choirs. For those accustomed to hearing note-perfect Beethoven concerti by pianists such as Mitsuko Uchida, Colin Fowler’s performance of the solo piano Adagio left much to be desired. Still, he and the other players gave a rousing reading of Beethoven’s heroic Op. 80. The youthful vitality of the ensembles helped to compensate for some minor musical deficiencies.