Forward March! Mark Morris’s A Choral Fantasy Assaults, but Four Saints Is Enchanting

At right, Amber Star Merkens in 'A Choral Fantasy.'

Why Beethoven’s flawed and surfacy “Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra”? Why all the military bombast? Why so literal a translation of music into movement? It’s a puzzlement—but then Mark Morris frequently chooses to puzzle us. Sometimes his puzzles charm and tease; in his new A Choral Fantasy—premiered at BAM this past week—he neither charms nor teases; he assaults.

Tall, elegant Amber Star Merkens is leader of the pack, personifying the piano elements of the score. She and the 14 other dancers in her troop are togged out in Isaac Mizrahi’s dark-green uniforms with lots of gold trimmings—they’re handsome and slimming, and highly suitable for marching, of which there’s going to be a lot. With his usual mastery of group movement, Mr. Morris has his dancers swarming all over the stage, breaking into clusters that morph into other clusters. Run, run, run; leap, leap, leap; and, most persistently, march, march, march.

Not since Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes have we seen so much marching on the stage, but Stars gives us jolly, tongue-in-cheek marching, to Sousa. Morris gives us pure swagger, arms pistoning, to Beethoven’s portentous drumbeats. Where are the jackboots? They’re all that’s missing to top off this tedious strutting and stomping. Eventually the excellent Trinity Choir joins in with a short, arid paean to life, love, art and God. (Fortunately, Beethoven rolled over, and years later gave us the real thing with the “Ode to Joy” climax to the Ninth Symphony.)

A Choral Fantasy is cleverly put together and highly polished, and it’s danced efficiently by Mr. Morris’s wonderful dancers. As always, they’re energized and focused, although it has to be said that as familiar faces and bodies phase out of the company, a touch of homogeneity is setting in. Well, maybe that’s appropriate for a work that suggests authoritarianism and displays a mechanical relationship between the choreography and the score.

To precede the Beethoven piece, Mr. Morris brought back his hour-long version of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera of 1934, Four Saints in Three Acts (although it has 14 saints and four acts). This famous work was first performed by an all-black group of singers and dancers and was staged by Frederick Ashton after Balanchine declined. Stein’s libretto is loopy yet slyly evocative, its most famous passage beginning “Pigeons on the grass alas.” Thomson’s music is light, jaunty, faux-simple. And Mr. Morris has decorated it all with a series of enchanting primitive backdrops by Maira Kalman in the blaring pinks and yellows and blues that kindergarten children love.

I’ve resisted this Four Saints since its premiere a dozen years ago—too much of it skirts cuteness and winsomeness. But this time around it came to life for me. Partly, I think, because the music has never sounded as good as it did now with the MMDG Music Ensemble, the Trinity Choir again and eight superb soloist singers. If you couldn’t always make out the words, that was probably a problem with the acoustics—and with the bizarreries of the text. The spirit and the sound were captivating. Everything added up to a major minor work.

In addition, a cast change helped lead me to a new perception of the dance. St. Teresa, the central character, has always been performed—powerfully—by the superb Michelle Yard. Midway through the second BAM performance she tore a calf muscle and, after a brief pause, was replaced by Rita Donahue, a more buoyant and less insistent dancer, and one who depends less on a relentless smile. Her performance the following night was charming and pleasing; her lucid St. Teresa altered the balance of the work. Although her billowy, white, diaphanous, near-baby-doll costume still compels your attention, Ms. Donohue is less a stand-out and more the most prominent figure of an ensemble. (She also had a new St. Ignatius, Samuel Black, as her partner; like Ms. Donahue, he’s a less vivid personality than his predecessor, John Heginbotham, but he’s stronger and more intense.)

Four Saints is long, and all of it is danced; the oratorio approach is bypassed by Mr. Morris. As a result, there are stretches when, to fill out the music, he seems to be vamping. But for the first time my patience wasn’t strained. Either this work is growing up or I am. Forward March! Mark Morris’s A Choral Fantasy Assaults, but Four Saints Is Enchanting