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Review: The Miracle of Mark Morris and 'L'Allegro'

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The earth we occupy is built from minor miracles and major miracles. When Mark Morris choreographed L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato some 33 years ago, he created a major miracle.

But because this evening-length miracle requires 24 astoundingly lithe and lightfooted dancers, a full orchestra, four opera singers, and a complete opera chorus -- well, despite its fame, L'Allegro isn't witnessed as often as, say, rainbows.

So if you don't catch the Mark Morris Dance Group at L.A.'s Music Center by May 8, well, book your ticket for January 2012 at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Either way, don't miss the current tour.

Okay, Morris didn't create L'Allegro alone. The music is by Handel, the words are by Milton, and many of the scenes are inspired by paintings from Blake. But the sensibility of L'Allegro remains quite modern, and still unique in the world of dance. It's something that yet feels new, linked timelessly with music that will never feel old.
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Dancer Shawn Gannon and women. Press photo by Mark Morris Group, Ken Friedman photographer.

L'Allegro is an ensemble piece which explodes across the stage in a series of 32 short scenes built on a very curious poem by that Other English Bard, a poem in which he resolves to throw off melancholy and celebrate life whether awake or sleep, whether wandering in "humming" cities or "buskined" fantasy. There are no sets to speak of, and no story, but each scene works the way a short poem works, or a song.

The mood alternates between reflection (il Penseroso) and joy (l'Allegro) -- but it's not giving away any plot to say that "L'Allegro" wins out, big time. Dancers come together in pairs, in trios, or circles of work or happiness; they become fighters or lovers, animals or trees, and then make long complex serpentines for no reason but the pleasure of creating the ever shifting patterns of life.

Even when they appear solo, the dancers seem never quite alone. Often they are "reflected" by other dancers behind scrims or briefly imitating the soloist from the edge of the stage, or joining the soloist momentarily -- as we are all joined momentarily in life by so many other people.

There is an extraordinary lightness to the proceedings, as if the dancers had no weight at all. As in the words of Milton's poem, they "trip the light fantastic toe." Over the years, one understands, as balletic technique has improved, the effect has become more and more true.

Wonderfully, L'Allegro is not a spiritual experience. I say wonderfully, because too much of beauty requires us to put aside "real life" to imagine a better realm, and the arts too often seek only to gratify a fairy-tale wish fulfillment. Part of the miracle is how the dancers seem very much a part of this world, and their joy a very human joy. It is common life they attempt to raise to ecstasy, and as the dancers approach the light of a cathedral, they do so uncertainly, and retreat just as they entered. It is abstract, but we understand.

Often, Morris sets up a kind of canon, with three or four groups beginning a figure which is taken up and repeated by another -- the motion rippling back and forth, round and round the crowd. This repetition offers the same joy as repetitions in music -- we too learn the motion, and it does not just pass us by. Indeed, as many have noted, L'Allegro is all about the music, not the dancers. This is also no small thing -- as so often, with modern ballet, the music is used merely as a background, or a replaceable vehicle for the choreography.

With Morris, the dancers attempt to embody the score in a very direct and literal way -- indeed it's almost as if every instrument and voice were connected by strings to the limbs of the dancers.

Yes, that brings a danger of the overly-literal -- as when a dancer, imitating a bird, picks out every flute trill with his fingers -- but somehow, Morris nearly always pulls it off. Not always, but nearly always, and even when the moves are filled with humor. At one point, for example, a pair of girls is chased around the stage by a pack of "hounds," one of whom pauses to relive himself on a "shrub" composed of other dancers. At another point, a circle of men alternate hugs and slaps, hugs and slaps. Silly? Somehow, in the context of L'Allegro, it is not.

The costumes (Christine Van Loon), especially in the first half, evoke common folk -- albeit with amazing thighs. The fireworks of color in Part II go perhaps too far -- but the second half, while less coherent and satisfying, draws to a powerful conclusion, as dancers join in "defensive pairs," showing themselves strong together, against the world, before their final celebration.

The vocal soloists in the current joint production with L.A. Opera include the remarkable sopranos Sarah Coburn and Hei-Kyung Hong, along with tenor Barry Banks and bass-baritone John Relyea. They perform admirably, but it is hard to pay attention when there's so much to watch on stage -- and because they are opera singers, you can't understand a word of what they say. Prepare to spend a good 15 minutes studying the libretto beforehand.

Grant Gershon conducts the pastoral music with a light and playful touch--remembering that Handel was a baroque composer, and full of charm.

Review first posted at www.laopeningnights.com

Tour information: www.markmorrisdancegroup.org
L.A. Venue: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
Remaining L.A. Performances: Friday, May 6 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, May 7 at 7:30 pm, Sunday May 8 at 2:00 pm
Tickets: $30 - $120.
Online: http://www.musiccenter.org/events/dance.html
Phone: 213-972-0711