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8-23: Walkaround Time
Basic Steps in Mark Morris's "L'Allegro"
By Tobi Tobias
Copyright 2002 Tobi Tobias
NEW YORK -- Walking
lies at the heart of dancing. One step after another, the steps
identical and uninflected, moving the body across the surface it
stands on, through the space it dwells in -- this fundamental material
need only be given rhythm and pattern to become a dance that vies
with the most intricate and elaborate choreography. Given a meaningful
context as well, it can stir a viewer profoundly.
In "L'Allegro, il Penseroso
ed il Moderato," Mark Morris's most gratifying big work, a key passage
that comes about three-quarters of the way through the dance consists
for the most part of nothing fancier than walking in rhythm in the
most basic designs. Bedrock stuff -- yet it alone could supply this
fertile, complex piece with a still center, a point at which the
choreography's lavish array of sights and insights could cohere
into the single, life-affirming view of human existence we recognize
as quintessentially Morris.
It's important, first,
to know where this is happening. Like every near-perfect dance work,
"L'Allegro" creates its own universe. Its action occurs in a world
of shifting color and light. Translucent panels -- some in the lush
pigments of flowers, fruit, and jewels, others in muted shades --
shift and overlap to create abstract, ephemeral landscapes. These
impalpable domains suggest sea and sky, sunshine and twilight, and
nature at her most bountiful, as well as the territory of ghosts
lurking at the borders of reality -- or, perhaps, the insubstantial
reflections one imagines to be suspended in the memory of a dance-studio
This vibrant space is
thickly populated. Morris's protean dancers play flora, such as
the trees and bushes in charmingly ambient forests, and fauna: slobbering
hunting dogs and petrified foxes; birds of every feather; fatuous,
mannered aristocrats; lovers of all stripes; bodies stricken by
mysteriously sudden and tragic death, gods exalted and fallen, and
the anonymous fellow citizens that surround each of us everywhere,
in whatever country of the heart or mind we inhabit. Needless to
say, these figures evoke a rich spectrum of experience and emotion,
both collective and individual.
However, at the critical
point I'm considering, the dancers have no persona, no narrative
agenda to pursue, no emotional terrain to explore and convey, no
activity to pursue beyond treading. Linked to one another in lines,
they go Step, step-dip, step, step-dip; a small, soft bend of the
knee -- a curtsey to gravity -- underscores every other step. The
patterns drawn by these human chains alternate between the linear
and the serpentine. The straight-edge chains trace the borders of
the stage, seeming in turn to expand and compress them, or cut across
the space diagonally, parsing it in yet another way, at times interweaving.
The curving chains trace sinuous paths. The number of people in
a chain varies constantly; now it's two chains of twelve each, now
four chains of six. Throughout, a strict geometry prevails. In every
chain, one dancer connects to the next by extending an arm so that
the hand cradles the elbow of the person in front of him. Each figure
is seen to be part of an organism that is universal and enduring.
After a couple of minutes
that offer a peaceable metaphor for eternity, the dancers free themselves
from their linked formations to come and go in the space in exuberant
leaps, four figures at a time, the quartets sometimes overlapping.
The dancers still move in unison, however, and in strictly symmetrical
patterns. They are never individualized, never idiosyncratic free
agents; there are always neighbors just like them, members of the
same clan, kin. There is no "I" here, only "we." And then the hectic
pace calms, the chains reform and the thrumming tread -- so like
a heartbeat -- takes up again, confirming the idea of a human connection
that goes on forever through space and time.
Simple as it is in its
architecture and vocabulary, this passage is in no way one of those
wipe-the-screen-clean intervals, understated in content, small-scale
in size and resonance, that a choreographer might use to set off
more physically and dramatically intense segments of his work or
more overtly poignant ones. No, it's huge. Like white, which embraces
the full spectrum of colors, it encompasses everything. It epitomizes
the dance as a whole and, for a tremendous moment, seems to represent
life, the universe.
"L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato": choreography by Mark Morris;
music by George Frideric Handel; text by Charles Jennens, taken
in part from John Milton; set by Adrianne Lobel; costumes by Christine
Van Loon; lighting by James F. Ingalls; premiere 1988; seen August
14, 2002, at the New York State Theater, performed by the Mark Morris
Dance Group: Todd Allen, Christina Amendolia, Joe Bowie, Charlton
Boyd, Marjorie Folkman, Maurice Fraga*, Shawn Gannon, Emily Gayeski*,
Lauren Grant, John Heginbotham, Peter Kyle, David Leventhal, Bradon
McDonald, Amber Merkens, Gregory Nuber, Maile Okamura, June Omura,
Joseph Poulson, Erika Randall*, Karen Reedy, Mara Reiner, Matthew
Rose, Kevin Scarpin*, Utafumi Takemura, Brynn Taylor, Noah Vinson,
Seth Williams*, Autumn Williams-Wussow, Julie Worden, Michelle Yard.
Performing the Handel
music was the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas
McGegan, with Christine Brandes, soprano; Dominique Labelle, soprano;
John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Philip Cutlip, baritone; and The Dessoff
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