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Flash Review 1, 3-26: Humans Dancing
Morris Springs Eternal in "L'Allegro"

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

There are a lot of small joys to be found in the dance concerts we go to see week after week. But a full evening of large-scale joy is a rare thing. On a breezy spring evening Friday the Mark Morris Dance Group gave just that in a performance of "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," a work considered to be Morris's masterpiece. The performance came at the end of MMDG's season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a season that celebrated the company's 20th anniversary and looked ahead to a new phase in its history as it prepares to move into its first permanent home, a luxurious complex in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Whether one is ambivalent or enthusiastic about Morris's work, there's no denying the riches to be found in "L'Allegro." It is a grand thing, containing (in my opinion) some of the most beautiful passages in dance, and it is the perfect distillation of Morris's creative intelligence.

For such a little pair of poems, Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" have had a big life. On their own they are some of the finest verse in English, picturing two dueling and finally inseparable states of mind -- mirth and melancholy -- in their natural surroundings. (Mirth hangs out in meadows, with sweet, high-spirited companions, and in the city; Melancholy prefers contemplation, night, a chapel.) With no dramatic situation or characters to speak of, the poems weren't an obvious pick for musical interpretation in 1740. But for Handel they were a perfect inspiration; his at once intimate and majestic oratorio heightens the already intense visual and emotional experience of the poems. When William Blake got hold of Milton's text, almost a century after Handel, he created a series of strangely beautiful etchings which, in the faraway world of 1988, Mark Morris added to his already considerable resources for a ballet.

Everything is on a grand scale here. I couldn't help feeling, as I sat in the gorgeous opera house at BAM, that this was a very Louis XIV theater experience. A wonderful chamber orchestra (conducted by Jane Glover) plays Handel's sprightly, elegant music (with most of "Il Moderato," the section Handel and his librettist added to represent the voice of Enlightenment moderation, removed in Morris's version); four fine singers and a chorus in the pit declaim Milton's gorgeous text. The expansive stage space spills over with Adrienne Lobel's beautiful moving panels and lighting designer James F. Ingalls's colors of grass and sunlight and thunderstorms. Twenty-six dancers, who in Christine van Loon's lovely costumes look like they've just come in from milking cows and mowing hay, proceed to tell a story that takes in death and love as well as the funny behavior of dogs and the even funnier behavior of males. Like the poems and the oratorio that are its inspiration, "L'Allegro" is a pastoral ode; with its 17th-century roots and its very present-day appeal, it is classicism of the richest kind.

The dances, like the music, are of an incredible variety. Virtuosic solos punctuate festive group scenes, which dissolve into radiant, Balanchinean parades of lines and circles. (My favorite group scene: the ecstatic romp to "Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee Jest, and youthful Jollity," in which the women follow the men in giddy tumbles and kicked-up heels.) In the same way, mirth and melancholy interweave, the latter's arrival sometimes signaled by the lowering of transparent scrims which point up the veiled, separate quality of Il Penseroso. There's an extended passage in which both L'Allegro and Il Penseroso muse on birdsong. Julie Worden (dancing like melted gold, so warm) and the irreverent Shawn Gannon took turns in this on Friday, but it was David Leventhal who really had larks and bluebirds in his body. Such a sweet, pure style -- everyone fell in love with him. Marjorie Folkman and Michelle Yard were great in a riotous hunting scene, as was Mirielle Radwan-Dana in a solo that encompassed all the terrible splendor of the mountains.

Three of the ballet's most famous passages come one after another in part two. Morris does a dreamy illustration of Milton's verse in a quartet to "Hide me from day's garish eye," in which Il Penseroso describes a tranquil scene of bees and murmuring water and "dewy-feathered sleep." The mood changes suddenly in what Morris once called "the stupid men's dance," a heave-ho-ing, butt-slapping, cheek-kissing riff on "civilized" male behavior. The contrast may be part of what makes "Lap me in soft Lydian airs," which follows, so astonishingly beautiful; this dance's simple, joyful composition makes it, for me, the spiritual center of the ballet. It's here that Morris, with women in serene circles and flower-like formations, explores the "hidden soul of harmony" which, finally, is at the ballet's heart.

For all their excellence, many of the dancers lacked the abandon that Ruth Davidson Hahn brought to her part as the presiding spirit of melancholy. Hahn's solo, which opens the ballet's second half, stilled the house with its pensive intensity. The crazy, delicious duets that follow -- with several couples somersaulting over each other -- are mirrored toward the end of the piece in Il Penseroso's final moments, in which four couples with raised fists and desperate embraces illustrate the anguish and nobility of the melancholy spirit. But L'Allegro finally triumphs in the spectacular rush that ends the piece: running and running as though they'd never stop, the dancers surge into circles as the curtain falls.

Is it too much to say that Milton's poems have found their fulfillment in Morris's ballet? It's too soon to put Morris in the pantheon with Blake and Handel, that's for sure. But the ability to make well-dressed audience members start doing grand jetes in the subway after a performance is no small thing. I completely understood the guy I saw doing that on Friday; with a chorus singing "Mirth, with thee we mean to live!" in my head, I had much the same inclination. With the gift for genial manipulation that all great artists have, Morris *decides* you to side with L'Allegro. There is also this particular and much-remarked gift of the MMDG: they make you think, Hey, I can do that -- me, with my calves! With my hips! With my haircut! Even when you know you probably couldn't really do it, it makes you feel welcome right away. It disposes you not just to a dance experience, but to a human one -- which, with all its big and little wonders, is what this ballet provides.

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