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Flashback, 8-17: Humans Dancing
Morris Springs Eternal in "L'Allegro"
By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2001, 2005 Alicia Chesser
(Editor's Note: To
celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider
is revisiting its Flash Review Archives. This Flash originally appeared
on March 26, 2001. The Mark Morris Dance Group reprises Mark Morris's
"L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" August 18-20 at the New
York State Theater.)
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
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
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
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