Choreographer Mark Morris may interpret, describe or mirror the music, but he never strays from it. Only the music gets to do that.
Beethoven’s Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra – performed tremendously by the Morris dance group’s music ensemble and the Trinity Choir – has a history of falling apart, starting with its infamous 1808 premiere. You could even argue that this combination concerto, march, Mozartian variation on a ditty, and shimmery dream has yet to come together. It begins with the piano swaying towards one climax after another until it backs into its theme, which then gets passed among the instruments. In place of a denouement, there are myriad deferrals, including a melody as delicate as a soap bubble to which Beethoven hopefully appends an Enlightenment hallelujah that sums up what never added up. You want to cackle or howl at the slapdash audacity.
The 20-minute dance is witty and various too, though not sneaky like the music. A Choral Fantasy clued us in to its unreliability as soon as the lights went up. Tall, lean Amber Star Merkens – dancing the piano part with Astaire elegance and whimsy – faced into the wings with her hands parted as if holding a box of air. She vanished before the first note, when clusters of dancers (several, new to the troupe, a bit restrained) tumbled in from the sidelines and tumbled out, repeatedly.
The dancing – often in glorious herds, intimate clusters or wending lines – responded to the music with big feeling, obviousness where you needed it, and whip-smart commentary on its hodgepodge of idioms. To a callow flute variation, two men did a bullying hand-slap duet. When the whole orchestra descended on the theme, the dances to all of the instruments erupted at once, each in its allotted square of stage. To Beethoven’s bombastic declarations, dancers collapsed to the floor. (There’s a statement for you!) Lovely glissandos prompted dying-swan arms. To a march, dancers marched – back and forth like officious crossing guards.
But to the choral summation – too grand and pat for this fantasia’s irresolute spirit – Morris complied with a modern dance version of the typical ballet finale. He is true even to the music’s falsity.