07 March 2012

Four Saints

Last summer I had to go to the Berkshires to see the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) perform. This year, I had to merely cross the bridge to Brooklyn to see my favourite dance company.

For three nights, the MMDG performed at BAM along with the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and the Trinity Choir, and I was lucky enough to get tickets for opening night. Even being sardined into tight seats in the balcony (which was so steep my fear of heights kicked in) was worth it to see them perform Four Saints in Three Acts and A Choral Fantasy.

Four Saints, an opera by Virgil Thomson with libretto by Gertrude Stein, revolves around two 16th century Spanish saints, Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola, and a dozen of their fellow saints. In Morris’ capable hands, it’s been condensed into an hour and filled with Spanish flair—flowers in hair, clapping of hands, twirling of skirts, steps taken directly from traditional Spanish dances—and a set designed by Maira Kalman, including a curtain that contains Stein’s words in Kalman’s signature handwriting. Dark this work is not. With lines like “If a magpie in the sky on the sky cannot cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas…” (classic Stein), how could it be anything but pure joy?

Theresa and Ignacio, clad in white, lead their fellow saints in dance before the two are delivered up to heaven via a giant swing while all the time the wonderful sounds of the chorus drift up from the orchestra pit below. Michelle Yard as Theresa was especially compelling to watch. Unfortunately I read that she tore a calf muscle the next night. Ouch. 

The premiere piece of the evening was the shorter A Choral Fantasy, set to Beethoven’s “Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80” (a piece that seems to give a hint of what was still to come—“Ode to Joy”). With the dancers this time decked out in jumpsuits and marching and falling into formation, the piece had a soldierly air about it, and I liked it.

The man himself, Mark Morris, came out at the end to take a bow—the perfect ending to a wonderful performance.

To find out more about the Mark Morris Dance Group, visit here.

Photo by Bill Cooper.

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