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Vignette, 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 mirror.

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 Choirs.

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