An opera like the 1928 Virgil Thomson–Gertrude Stein Four Saints in Three Acts, whose third line is “It makes it well fish,” begs serious inquiries into why the mystic Saint Teresa of Avila and the ex-knight Saint Ignatius should be canoodling. And Thomson’s tart-sweet score coupled with Stein’s rhythmic jittering produces an atmosphere of exalted children’s games or a Baptist picnic. It seems perfectly reasonable that in heaven Saint Ignatius pushes the blissful Saint Teresa on a swing.
For Mark Morris’s production of the opera, presented during his company’s season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (through March 25), the choreographer puts the singers (somewhat elevated) in the pit with the orchestra and conductor Craig Smith, giving the dancers the stage. That stage, charmingly dressed by Maira Kalman, looks less like Spain than one of its more tropical colonies, with the changing backdrops bearing naive paintings in pink and orange. A front curtain, decked with Stein-text printed in a childish hand, parts at the center so that Ignatius (John Heginbotham) can usher behind it the cast of bouncy saints as they’re introduced. Later he and Teresa (Michelle Yard) check names off at this cleft, as if Act IV were an exclusive club event. The bodices of the women’s lovely, sheer, flouncy dresses (by Elizabeth Kurtzman) suggest Spanish shawls, while the men are garbed more like peons in cutoff white pants. The delicious Yard wears a very short white frock that shows her panties, underscoring her frisky innocence and contrasting with her moments of sudden power.
Sometimes Morris echoes the enigmatic scenario. “Introducing Saint Ignatius,” says the Compère, and Heginbotham bourrées past, as elongated as an El Greco (only happier), and disappears from both stage and score. The dancers gesture Stein’s repeated “come” and “remember.” They prance and march, and Lauren Grant is borne like a statue in seated prayer.
Morris’s beguiling choreography for the saintly community features chains and clusters and rings and free-form frolics. Sometimes his movement has the vigorous plainness of folk dances; sometimes he delves into Spanish style. Both leader and icon, Yard’s also a good little girl hosting her birthday party, and endearing Ignatius not only kneels to her but hugs her and supports her turns like a cavalier. However, he’s a leader too, and in one of the brightest scenes, the men labor and strut beside him (visionary vaudeville) while the women flutter scrappily through (“Pigeons on the grass alas”), later joining a sort of Sevillanas in a circle, with partners flourishing past each other, arms curved, skirts whipping.
It’s a lovely production. Something about the music and the antic, circling words keeps making me think it’s about to end, but then I get pleased yet again by the wonderful performing and the cleverness of it all.
Sarah East Johnson lies on her back, legs up, so Natalie Agee can stand on her feet. In this duet, sturdy Johnson and the slighter Agee glide around each other’s bodies, their acrobatics as fluent and potentially dangerous as the snow that becomes a silent avalanche in one of the films Johnson shows during her fine new Timberline (at P.S. 122 through March 25). The women in Johnson’s company, Lava, have honed their skills since I last saw them. Johnson can press Agee into a layout overhead and then smoothly tilt her toward the floor. The women are so close to us that we can hear their breathing through the soft music played by Babe the Blue Ox. Watching their intimate encounters with gravity and each other, I feel a catch in my throat; when they cantilever themselves out into a delicately counterbalanced position, we cheer. The dancing is as much about daring and determination as are the taped stories about surviving disasters.
In Timberline, Johnson effectively melds her interests in dance, circus, and geology. Johnson, Agee, Molly Chanoff, Tanya Gagné, Diana Y. Greiner, Adrienne Truscott, and nine-year-old Adriana and Marina Sgroi clamber up a pillar toward a small platform. That image segues into a mountain snowfield where we see, in Nancy Brooks Brody’s video, tiny hikers dressed in black pants and white shirts just as they are in the theater. Early on, there’s a video of penguins; later, women take tiny waddling steps, each holding a small white balloon between her feet; whenever one of these “eggs” rolls off, the little girls reposition it.
There are many tests of strength and equilibrium. Gagné walks a tightrope, four women work two trapezes, five dive through towers of rings (the four musicians wittily give us “Ring of Fire” during the setup). In the show’s swift-moving and beautifully designed hour, the interludes that cover rest breaks or costume changes are events in themselves. I particularly like the act in which four gingham-clad women and two kids pour water into glasses in various intrepid ways to ring the Johnson-Agee duet, and afterward remove them via even more acrobatic and imaginative strategies.
Sometimes Donald Byrd’s choreography is so good! The steps in Alleged Dances—Afro-pop meets contra dance meets killer ballet—crackle and sway to John Adams’s dazzling music (commissioned by Symphony Space last year), and Byrd shifts the patterns so skillfully that the marvelous Olivia Bowman, Alexandra Damiani, Thaddeus Davis, and Jamal Story look like a village. Byrd is also adroit in Gentle Prelude. Theresa Da Silva, Daniel Cardoso, and Michael Thomas join the others in a Duke Ellington ballroom. Using the music loosely, Byrd gives Da Silva three swains to display her and sets the gorgeous Story showing off for Bowman in a mix of acrobatic flips, pirouettes, and beats. It’s brisk and utterly uncorny.
However, the Symphony Space premiere, HeavyLight, to a commissioned score by Steven Mackey, comes across as an elaborate work in progress—a ritual freighted with significance that drags on and on. Karine Plantadit-Bageot is a kind of guru, trailing a white train and speaking (initially in French) foggy words by Dr. Timothy Leary, like “You are at the point of finding a new reality.” The musicians of MOSAIC (flute, piano, cello, and percussion) play behind the dancers; projected videos often fragment the action; Allen Hahn’s lighting reinforces the hallucinatory effect. This is a ’70s acid binge as religious catharsis. Bad trips look like medieval processions. A twitching figure wrapped in white like a mummy (tall Rachel Venner) is calmed and carried away. Four dancers lashed loosely together with white strips twist and untwist. People hurtle in with lumps stuffed under their white unitards (costumes by Dawn Weisberg). The music freaks out; so do the dancers. They roll about, laugh crazily, fear a veiled figure, feel horny, change clothes, stare dazed. “Reenter slowly,” warns Plantadit-Bageot, “and remember the teaching.” For all the effects and stunning performing, what that “teaching” is remains a mystery.