By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- Mark Morris has turned to Beethoven for the fifth time with his “A Choral Fantasy,” which had its premiere last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (I saw it March 2.) Danced to a (live) performance of the work of the same name, it is a playful, ironic and historically infused musing on war. As it starts, Amber Star Merkens stands alone upstage with her hands held aloft, like a conductor in freeze-frame before an (invisible) orchestra. When she lets her hands fall and rapidly walks downstage, the music begins.
In turning to Beethoven, Morris follows a tradition that began with Isadora Duncan and continued through Fedor Lopukhov and Leonide Massine, who had the temerity to choreograph to the composer’s works (in 1904, 1923 and 1934, respectively). In all three cases, music critics argued that Beethoven was too complex and spiritually complete to be tarnished by dance steps. And while dancing to Beethoven no longer causes such hand-wringing, it is still rare that a dance maker can hold his own against his music.
The phrases “Peace and joy advance in perfect concord,” and “Accept then, you beautiful souls, Joyously the gifts of high art,” sung in the Fantasy’s finale, refer to the peace of 1808, when Napoleon’s war with Austria seemed to be over. But all too soon the war was on again. Does Morris perceive a parallel between Napoleon’s ambitions and America’s? Perhaps. Last December, the U.S. military withdrew is troops from Iraq. Now Iran is in the Pentagon’s rear view mirror and NATO troops in Afghanistan are vexed from all sides.
Morris, however isn’t one to moralize. His war images -- marching battalions and hand-to-hand combat – get ironic treatment, as small battalions of dancers move back and forth across the stage; by the fourth crossing they appear to be at a loss, without any direction. Those engaged in what resembles hand-to-hand combat do it with a playfulness that recalls children playing patty cake. Morris’ vocabulary features slicing arms and legs, but also cutesy tightrope walks where the dancers cross their wrists, as the women do in the second act of “Swan Lake.”
Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes are forest green to resemble 19th-century uniforms, with an X across the chest, recalling musket and ammunition slings. But they hardly evoke military might. The jumpsuits, with playful rivulets of gold color along the pants’ legs, look more suitable to sleeping, or trick-or-treating, than fighting.
As performed by the 24-voiced Trinity Choir, pianist Colin Fowler and the MMDG ensemble, conducted by Stephan Asbury, "A Choral Fantasy" is Beethoven’s herald to power. But Morris satirizes power. The work struggles, at odds with itself, until the end. At that point, Morris drops his genial huckstering and matches Beethoven’s triumphant strains by sending his dancers into the air. At the apex of their jumps, they tilt their heads back as if singing. In the last image, they hold their arms aloft like Atlas, the Titan who supported the weight of the heavens on his shoulders.
The evening began with Morris’ “Four Saint in Three Acts” (2000), again named for its score -- Virgil Thompson’s 1934 opera with libretto by Gertrude Stein, famous for her gaming of the English language into nonsensical repetitions. The opera pivots around the character of Saint Teresa of Avila, a nun and a mystic. In Morris’ hands, however, she resembles Isadora Duncan, the patron saint of American modern dance. In 1900, Duncan shirked codified ballet, performed in a scanty toga and worshipped nature. Duncan’s flouting of the status quo (something dear to Morris’ heart) altered the course of concert dance.
In a white diaphanous frock, Michelle Yard performed Saint Teresa with a simplicity of movement that shouted early 20th century. Around her the ensemble appeared as Spanish peasants, performing folk dances whose stamping resembled the crushing of grapes. Nature was God to Isadora Duncan. Maira Kalman’s set designs of fishes, birds, streams and mountains evoked Duncan’s paganism to perfection.
Three quarters through “Four Saints,” Morris appeared on stage to say that an injured dancer was being attended to. When the show continued, Rita Donahue had replaced veteran MMDG member Michelle Yard. Morris’ dances look easy to perform, but if Yard (whose body is as strong as a stallion) can get injured, then appearances are deceiving. Analogously, Morris’ choreography is never as it initially appears. The dance steps’ playful relation to music, the work’s probing connection to history, and the choreographer’s satiric attitude about the world isn’t just for fun and games. It’s Morris’ way of transforming the experience of life.