March 1, 2012
I’ve been reading a good deal of Gertrude Stein for classes lately, and was thus particularly excited to see Mark Morris’s rendering of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” the opera composed by Virgil Thomson to which Stein contributed the fantastic libretto. Her lyrics are foregrounded from the outset: a large canvas-like curtain emblazoned with the beginning of the libretto, as well as a few symbols here and there, greeted the audience as we waited for the performance to begin. It took a bit of contemplation to determine which direction the text moved in (across the center or vertically in two columns?), and the split in the center caused the words positioned there to repeat or extend themselves (i.e. “chaanged”), both very Stein-ian effects.
Michelle Yard and Samuel Black, dressed all in white, portrayed St. Teresa and St. Ignatius, respectively, dancing both with the other “saints” and in a series of duets. From time to time the text-filled drop would open (sometimes impelled by dancers) to reveal bright, storybook The “assorted saints” were dressed in folky costumes: calf-length twirling skirts and shawl-like peasant tops over bra tops for the women, and tanks, knee-length pants, and neckerchiefs for the men, all in earthy tones with bright accents. The movement was continually understated and low to the ground, here and there becoming more explicitly folk-influenced.
The greatest pleasures of this piece came from the interplay between the movement on stage and the lyrics being sung by the soloists and the Trinity Choir. Stein continually confounds our sense of where we are in the course of the piece by having the singers repetitively announce or reference scenes or acts in ways that make a linear sense of time impossible. At times the lyrics became simply music, the repetitive mutations slipping away from signification and into pure aurality. At other times, our attention would be drawn back to the often absurd wordplay, as the choreography accentuated the silliness of phrases like “Pigeons on the grass alas.”
The second piece on the bill, “A Choral Fantasy,” was a world premiere, set to music by Beethoven. The costumes, by Issac Mizrahi, were dark colored unitards with asymmetrical gold x’s on the front and back, and reflective squiggles down the side, which nicely accentuated the dancers’ lines and movements.
Morris’s talent for organizing space in engaging ways was on full display. The first few minutes of the piece occurred entirely stage right, with dancers retreating and advancing but never making it to or across the center of the stage. Near the middle of the piece, there were four unique tableaux in motion in each corner of the stage while Amber Star Merkens, with whom the piece had begun, held court in the center. More “dance-y” than “Four Saints,” “A Choral Fantasy” maintained a level of contrast throughout that ensured the big leaps maintained their impact. As the piece drew to a close, the dancers shifted in and out of triangular formations, teasing us with a false climax, until we finally did reach the end, satisfying in its simple, yet exhilarating clarity.