Friday’s airing of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, couldn’t come at a better time as the American choreographer has just been named one of the National Museum of Dance’s 2015 Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame Inductees (the other is Rudolf Nureyev, so Morris is in great company).
The Mark Morris Dance Group, which was founded in New York City in 1980, has become one of the preeminent modern dance companies in the world. The dancers are constantly praised for their technique and musicality. Artistic director and choreographer of the group, Morris is noted for his emotional and universal choreography and storytelling, and L’Allegro might be the jewel of his choreographic work.
Largely considered a landmark achievement in dance, Morris’ physical interpretation of George Frideric Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is an impeccable example of the intermix of art and performance. Here, the dancers embody the transformative nature of art: They are more than bodies moving through space, they are the notes personified.
Filmed in July 2014 at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, the performance marks the 26th anniversary of Morris’ L’Allegro—it originally premiered in 1988 and was his first work as Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, where he had a three-year residency. Morris had the opportunity, and ability, to choreograph his heart out, and he did. Which is very lucky for us, because we now have a dance that has the innate ability to actually make us feel real joy. It’s rare for a dance, a piece of art even, to elicit such a feeling, but somehow, Morris has figured out the answer to that puzzle.
It all begins with Handel’s 1740 oratorio and excerpts from John Milton’s pastroral poems from 1645, “L’Allegro” (the cheerful man) and “Il Penseroso” (the thoughtful, pensive man). The two-act, two-hour production uses the poems as a narrative basis and a lyrical script. It features a set inspired by William Blake’s watercolors, and it works to find symmetry in all areas.
The dancers create one level of this with the shapes their bodies make, the structure of the choreography, and their fluid quality of movement. The movement, which is still as inventive and refreshing as it was in 1988, harkens back to the time of the Greeks and the beginnings of modern dance. The gestural language communicates the text clearly. The sensuality of the dancers is both welcoming and enviable. It shows that something classic never grows old.
The deceptively simple set, designed by Adrianna Lobel, helps to contribute to the feeling of the work. The series of moving color planes that reference the poetic language (without being too literal) give the stage depth, working in tandem with the zooming camera lens of the taping, and working in tandem with the dance, giving it a tangible quality. The dancers live within the scenes, becoming one with the colors and shapes.
From this collaboration of elements comes the harmony that permeates the production. Melancholy meets joy seamlessly. Excitement and sorrow play well together. It is human nature in real life, and something that we don’t get to see very often onstage. There is such a sense of dignity, true emotion and camaraderie among the dancers, within their understanding of the choreography, music and text, and within Morris’ understanding of his own artistic concept, producing a work that is wholly successful.
Morris found a way to unravel what we try to hide: our own happiness and our own sadness. Yet the answer has been right in front of our eyes for ages, wrapped in Milton’s words:
Untwisting all the chains that ty
The hidden soul of harmony.
That Orpheus self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heapt Elysian flowers, and hear
Such streins as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half regain’d Eurydice.
These delights, if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee, I mean to live.