Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee Jest and youthful Jollity.
— chorus, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”
When the young Mark Morris created the biggest production of his life — the “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” accompanied by the Handel oratorio of the same name — he had access to riches beyond any American choreographer’s reach.
At the time, the fall of 1988, he was just beginning a three-year stint as the dance director of Belgium’s national theater. Making full use of the state-funded resources there, Morris conceived a two-hour work for 24 dancers that included an orchestra, chorus and four solo singers. The dancers had two costumes changes each and the set design, a feat of timing and rhythm, involved 21 color-blocked scrims sliding into position every few minutes.
But there were no props. Not a single shrub, rock, rustic hut or bench to help anchor the dancing in a physical landscape.
Still, this work, which the Mark Morris Dance Group brings to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week for the first time in 13 years, brims with the living visual detail of a pastoral painting. At times you feel you’re looking at a winking Watteau come to life. The dancing creates it all — mood, action and scenery. Over the course of this evening-long meditation on varying emotional states (as the title suggests, they’re shades of cheerful, pensive and even-keeled), the performers may group themselves into a stand of trees, a hedgerow, a horse-drawn carriage and a brace of hunting dogs. Or an undulating sea, then a mountainous ridge, then again the sea.
No expense was spared in this work, and Morris could have had the set designers build him any kind of decor. Instead, he had the dancers dance it.
“You should be able to get that across through dancing, I think,” he said in a recent phone interview from his apartment in New York. “I’m old-fashioned that way. I’d rather pay dancers more than put in a bunch of TV screens. That’s not so interesting to me. I start with props and then I get rid of them, ’cause you don’t need them.”
You don’t need them, that is, if you have the fertile mind of Morris. That he relied on dancing, and dancing alone, to tell this sprawling story of human existence that he had in his head since first hearing the music several years earlier is telling. There is no other choreographer today with Morris’s unbound imagination and the skill to realize it onstage.
At the time of “L’Allegro’s” creation, he was only 32. With his musical and profoundly sensitive works, his approachable dancers and his cheeky personality, Morris had emerged in the 1980s as The One, a Cadillac artist to fill the vacuum left by George Balanchine, whose death in 1983 had raised fears that an era of dance sophistication was over. In truth, Balanchine, the balletmaker, and Morris, who followed no codified dance system, are not the least bit alike. But Morris’s powers of invention are every bit as great, if not greater, with his broader musical tastes and ability to make up fresh moves and veer into different styles with just about every work.
So hopes of a new leader in dance seemed to be fulfilled in Morris’s first work of his Brussels contract. In “L’Allegro,” he brought forth a complex range of characters, ideas, emotional states and metaphysical change expressed in three art forms spanning three centuries: Morris drew on John Milton’s 17th-century allegorical poems (“L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”), which inspired Handel’s 18th-century music (and a third part, “Il Moderato,” written by his librettist), and were given form in the 19th century in a dozen watercolor portraits by William Blake.
That these should all be united in the 20th century as an evening of rapturous, at times terrifying and poignant dancing is what Mikhail Baryshnikov calls Morris’s “genius chutzpah.”
“I had seen his work before; I know Mark is an extraordinarily gifted choreographer — that was not a question in my mind,” Baryshnikov said recently, recalling his first time seeing “L’Allegro,” shortly after its premiere in Brussels.
At the time, the famed Russian ballet star had occasionally been a guest artist in Morris’s company. But in “L’Allegro,” Baryshnikov saw a new level of confidence in the Seattle-born choreographer, “to step next to Blake, Milton and Handel. It was a very bold and daring step for a young man of a different culture, different continent, different sensibility, to put himself as a chief coordinator of all of this, especially moving a couple of the Handel pieces, changing the ending, switching the order, and, you know — bringing it down to earth.”
Embodied by Morris’s barefoot dancers, the grandeur and baroque detachment of the Handel oratorio and its disembodied extremes of feeling become as clear and immediate as a native language.
But “L’Allegro” is more than a dance. It’s a landmark in the career of one of the country’s most important artists, when he went from exciting new hope to acknowledged master. It is also a comprehensive showcase of the qualities that make Morris the leading choreographer of the age. See this one piece and know the artist. See it again and question what you thought you knew. (That’s quality No. 1: There’s too much to absorb in a single viewing.)
The power to move an audience. Think grand slam in a World Series. That was the reaction to “L’Allegro’s” American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1990.
“I remember being so emotionally overcome by that show,” says fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. “And at the end, people were screaming and everyone leapt out of their seats, I mean everyone.”
Mizrahi, who went on to design costumes for several Morris works, says the impact of “L’Allegro” lies in “the range of emotions that are captured by the little tiny gestures. Not to mention the many fragments of silent-movie style and 18th-century ballet. It’s way above and beyond postmodern, like something really classic.”
What lifts audiences out of their seats is that all that richness, all the shapes and illusions Morris creates throughout the piece resolve into a finale of breathtaking simplicity. The work begins in a rush — the dancers streaming across the stage, from one corner to the other — and ends in an ecstatic sweep, as they spin in circles within circles, echoing the cycles of nature, the wheeling of celestial bodies, the joy of community.
“My skin crawls, practically, with pride for humankind,” said Baryshnikov. “The way they perform it — this kind of restraint and dignity and satisfaction and pride, all those elements, which is what this piece is about, and the divinity, definitely, of a human being. . . . But at same time there is the unspoken camaraderie, hands touching, running, and they suddenly become one and disappear like nothing has happened onstage.”
The power to move his dancers — in unusual ways. Morris invents a new movement language for just about every piece, and in “L’Allegro,” there are bits of ballet, mime, American Sign Language, grade-school play, abstract postmodern quirks, even a little Isadora Duncan.
“As a dancer, it’s very rare that you have the opportunity to do everything you’ve ever learned in one night, from the most virtuosic, florid dance moves to, you know, ‘I am a tree,’” says Dan Joyce, who teaches dance at George Mason University and was a member of Morris’s group from 1988 to 1998. “Every skill you ever learned in dancing gets called upon in two hours.”
Ability to tune out the static and work. For all the ecstasy “L’Allegro” inspires, it came about in an atmosphere of tumult laced with bitterness. In hiring Morris, the general director of Brussels’s Theatre de la Monnaie, Gerard Mortier, had thought it a fine idea to install an attention-getting American modern-dance troupe in the position recently vacated by Frenchman Maurice Bejart and his ballet company. But the Belgians thought otherwise. They preferred their serious, polite Bejart to the young man who was serious in the studio but outspoken and flippant in public, and who arrived very willing to work, and work hard (he made some of his biggest and most important pieces in Brussels, including his “Nutcracker”-inspired “The Hard Nut” and a production of the Henry Purcell opera “Dido and Aeneas”), but decidedly unwilling to curry favor with the European press. He made some off-the-cuff statements, they were circulated with unflattering photos, and the tensions spiraled up and up.
“I’m so [expletive] relieved to be out of Brussels,” says Morris. “I hated [expletive] Brussels.”
No wonder. Joyce recalls taking a curtain call at La Monnaie for a Morris work that had involved nudity. The dancers received polite applause. Then Morris strode on for his bow, and was showered in boos. (He kept smiling as if they were bravos.) “The fortitude he had, to deal with the mud that was flung his way,” Joyce says.
Their bodies, ourselves. In the nearly 25 years since “L’Allegro” premiered, Morris’s dancers have, not surprisingly, changed. Mizrahi fondly remembers women in the original cast “who had giant [rear ends], and these crazy giant calves and boobs, and men who had thick middles. . . . It’s idyllic; there’s no such thing as a beautiful body to him. Everybody’s body is beautiful.”
Nowadays, the dancers may be slimmer but they still come in different shapes and sizes. And ages. June Omura, an original cast member, is 47 and still dancing in “L’Allegro,” though she says the Kennedy Center performances will likely be her last in this work. (She also dances in “The Hard Nut.”)
Morris’s embrace of bodies in all their lumpy, curvy, varied glory is evident in his hearty, playful and sometimes raw choreography, and it spills over into costume design. Says Mizrahi, “The idea in Mark’s company is not to mask the body. Not to mask the flesh or the musculature. A tutu is a beautiful thing but it gives the leg a certain look that’s kind of like a disguise. In Mark’s work, even if they’re playing an animal or a bird, you’re still looking at a human body. And so it’s like you’re looking, almost, at yourself.”
Community. “L’Allegro” is not the first Morris work to include dancers moving in a circle holding hands; it’s a common motif. He is an avid collector of folk dances — he has studied many and often imports the mutual support and collective pleasure of folk dances into his works. You can’t help but feel uplifted when you see the spinning, whizzing chain of dancers. The dancers feel it, too. (They have to. Morris engineers it so it’s authentic communal warmth; he hates hokiness.)
“My experience with dancing has been replete with unbelievable moments of friendship and community onstage, while we’re performing,” says Omura, choking up on the phone.
Some see a value in this celebration of the ordinary-but-divine human going well beyond the world of the arts.
“I think it’s the perfect time now” for “L’Allegro” to be seen in Washington, said Baryshnikov. “All the people running for office should go to the Kennedy Center.” With the full spectrum of human experience it represents, “L’Allegro,” he said, will “remind them they are servants of these people, and not the masters.”
For his part, Morris has a simpler view of his masterpiece.
“It was exactly what I wanted to do and a delight and really, really hard work,” he says. “It didn’t freak me out much except I lost my mind and it was impossible to do.”
performs “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” to music by Handel at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Jan. 26-28 at 7:30 p.m., accompanied by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, the Washington Bach Consort and four vocalists. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $19.00 - $69.00.