The Fifth Saint in Brooklyn: Mark Morris Takes On Stein

Come all, ye madcaps, here’s Gertrude Stein.

The place to be in 1934, if you were in the Modernist swim, was Hartford, Conn. It was there, at Chick Austin’s Wadsworth Atheneum, that Balanchine’s Serenade was first seen. And it was at the Atheneum that, on successive nights, le tout New York showed up for the opening of America’s first Picasso exhibition and the dress rehearsal of the new Gertrude Stein–Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The first two of these events, of course, were to have more lasting effect, but it was the third that made the greatest immediate splash: Four Saints went on from Hartford to Broadway, racked up a total of 60 performances (the most by any American opera until that time) and was the subject of endless commentary and argument. “From Ottumwa, Iowa, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Owatonna, Minnesota, to Great Falls, Montana,” we’re told in Eugene Gaddis’ excellent new biography of Austin, “Four Saints became a welcome diversion in a Depression-weary world.” The incantation “Pigeons on the grass alas” became a byword. The New Yorker chimed in with the inevitable cartoon. Macy’s advertised its fall collection as “Four Suits in Three Acts.” And more to the point, the impact of the opening night was compared (by Carl Van Vechten) to that of the premiere in Paris of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and (by Thomson himself) to the showing of Duchamps’ Nude Descending a Staircase at the New York Armory.

Four Saints was originally performed by an all-black cast, although that had not been the initial intention: Virgil Thomson, who grew up on Baptist hymns, was up in Harlem one night and was struck by the “perfect diction and sense of rhythm of a Negro …. [They] can put themselves into the religious or fanciful moods of Four Saints in Three Acts a thousand times better than white singers.” John Houseman was chosen to stage the whole thing; Frederick Ashton was imported from England (his first trip to America) to choreograph the dances. As for Florine Stettheimer’s décor, Mr. Gaddis describes the black singers as “dressed in silks, satins, gold and silver lamé, motionless in a cellophane world-all in shades of pink, white, green, and blue. Two huge orange and yellow cloth lions sat under cellophane trees with dark orange velvet trunks and fronds made of ostrich plumes …. The stage looked like an enchanting baroque candy box.” Photographs testify to the happy charm of the production and the joy of the performers.

What’s left of Four Saints? There’s a revelatory recording from 1947, conducted by the composer with more or less the original cast; there was a muted production five years ago, by Robert Wilson, at the Lincoln Center Festival; and now there’s Mark Morris. What he’s chosen to do with the 55 or so minutes that he’s using from the original 90-minute score is exuberant and ingenious, but if you believe in Four Saints, his contribution is, finally, diminishing rather than enhancing. Unlike most operas, this one begins with, and lives by, The Word. Stein’s goofy, whimsical, illogical but captivating lines are the stuff of the opera-the Saints and the Spanishisms gave her the context for her language, but her subject remains language itself. This is made immediately clear in the Thomson recording: The words pop out at you, clear and strong, dominating the aptly faux-naïf music as they no doubt dominated the fantastical and entrancing 1934 production. Indeed, the fuss attendant on that production was overwhelmingly about Stein and her eccentric way with words. “Come All, Ye Madcaps, Here’s Gertrude Stein,” headlined the Philadelphia Record.

Mr. Morris has his eight singers and his musicians in the pit; the big stage at B.A.M. is left clear for the dancers. Even the décor is minimal: a series of vivid backdrops (one for each of the four-not three-acts) by Maira Kalman, some colorfully painted wings, a few props. Stein’s opening words-“To know to know to love her so. Four saints prepare for saints. It makes it well fish,” and so on-are scrawled across a curtain. But once this curtain is pulled, her words lose their primacy. They’re muffled in the pit, not particularly well enunciated by the singers, and entirely subsidiary to the dancing. In Mr. Morris’ treatment of Dido and Aeneas, Purcell’s music is ravishingly embodied in the stage drama. The Morris choreography for Platée is decorative, a touch cute, but never in competition with Rameau’s score. In his Four Saints, the opera is mere background.

Since Four Saints has nothing resembling a plot or even a situation, the dance can have no narrative to motor it. There are moments of identifiable activity-St. Teresa (of Avila) and St. Ignatius (Loyola) stand at the gateway of Heaven letting or not letting people in. But mostly there are gracefully composed dances for the six couples of the corps-all Spanishy in their costumes and in the accent of their dancing (we could be watching a zarzuela)-and ecstatic interventions by the two chief saints. Teresa is danced by Michelle Yard, who with her dark skin and semi-diaphonous white baby-doll outfit, her warmth and generosity of spirit and body, is as close as Mr. Morris gets to referring to the 1934 production (whose girls, we’re told by Julie Kavanagh in her biography of Ashton, “were decidedly sexy in white semi-transparent tunics, through which their brown limbs and bare feet could be glimpsed”). Skinny John Heginbotham-Ignatius-is Ms. Yard’s physical opposite, but matches her in joyous energy; both dancers justify Mr. Morris’ decision to grant them long, un-Morris-like solos. But the dance invention isn’t interesting or various enough to sustain a 55-minute work, particularly when one is straining to follow an unpredictable text. Despite its verve and musicality and its felicities of performance, this Four Saints looks to me more like a problem Mr. Morris set out to solve than an inspired response to the Stein-Thomson collaboration. I suspect that it will be welcomed most enthusiastically by those who have already canonized the young and flourishing and very much alive Mark Morris as a fifth saint.

Four Saints was the major novelty of a three-week B.A.M. season that was the closest we’ve come in years to a real Morris retrospective, but there is much else to note.

Among the highlights: a beautiful piece to Chopin piano music, Sang-Froid, new to New York-nine dancers in black, romping together, playfully impeding each other, responding to both the fun and the tragedy of the music in ways that make you set aside for the moment your memories of Dances at a Gathering and Les Sylphides. A major new Morris work.

The intensity and clarity, the fullness, of June Omura’s dancing, plus the sense one gets that talented younger dancers like the beautiful Julie Worden and the boyish (and omnipresent) David Leventhal are learning from her and others of her generation how never to relax their concentration.

The sustained spell of works we know well: the powerful Grand Duo, the haunting Bedtime, the twinkly Lucky Charms.

The brilliant solo performance by Mr. Morris, despite a diminishment of his physical powers, in Peccadillos, a series of witty responses to short pieces by Erik Satie, played on a toy piano by the gifted Ethan Iverson (equally fine in the Chopin).

The fascination of seeing how different-and how much more effective-both The Office and Dancing Honeymoon were on B.A.M.’s grand stage from the way they looked in the cramped New Victory. Everyone knows how essential live music is to Mark Morris’ work, but this season makes it clear that the right space is crucial, too. The Office grew in authority and power; Dancing Honeymoon seemed more a dance with something to tell us, less an adorable novelty.

And, of course, there was the return of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, everybody’s favorite. (For those who couldn’t make it to B.A.M., there’s the consolation of an extraordinarily handsome new book with the same title, edited by Jeffrey Escoffier and Matthew Lore. It’s a thorough and valuable critique and appreciation of this glorious dance work, though at moments it seems to read into it even more than is there.)

The season had its disappointments. Sorry, but the endless repetitions of Javanese-like movement in World Power leave me bored, not hypnotized, and I could live, too, without Mark Twain’s politically correct text about the Philippine War. Again, the deliberate barn-dance simplicities of Home, despite the effective singing by Michelle Shocked of her own searing ballads, wear my patience down. Nor do I need to experience again the sophistications of Silhouettes, performed this time around by two men, one wearing pajama tops, the other pajama bottoms. This kind of thing was more fun with Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

The main lesson of the season for me is the urgent need for a regular annual or semi-annual cycle of Mark Morris repertory here in New York. He makes works for modern and ballet companies all over the country, but we only get to see them-and earlier works as well-on a hit-or-miss basis. His company has a new home in Brooklyn, across from B.A.M. He has the perfect stage to work on. He has a wildly enthusiastic and loyal audience. No one can begrudge the company its ambitious touring schedule, but hey, Mark, you live in New York, you work in New York, you raise money in New York-now identify yourself with New York in a way we can come to rely on. Remember: George Balanchine became the leader of ballet throughout the world not just because of his genius. There has also been the consistent presence, for over half a century, of all his major work in the world’s greatest city.