Under Mark Morris, Handel oratorio becomes a visual feast


Mark Morris Dance Group performs “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” The dancers, from left: Lauren Grant, Julie Worden and Craig Biesecker. (Elaine Mayson/Elaine Mayson)
January 27, 2012

Agreed: Mirth, with thee I mean to live.

The chorus sings these words at the exultant finish of Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” which transforms the Handel oratorio into a visual feast with the happiest dancing you could hope to see. And as you watch the dancers join hands and circle the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, the whole cast whirling in a spin-cycle of physical joy, living by that sentiment feels entirely possible.

Was it raining yesterday? Hardly noticed. “L’Allegro” was still turning in my mind.

It’s not just the jubilant finale and its marriage of movement to drums, brass and silvery voices that stays with you. Though that alone could conceivably give those who seek it a reason to go on living.

“L’Allegro” is bigger than that. It’s bigger than mere pleasure because Morris (like Handel, and like the Milton poems that the composer braids through the music) shows us pain, too, and a variety of effects through the dancers that remind us of the unjust, messy, random richness of humanity. Having traversed a range of emotional states with the music and the dancers — the happy (a rough translation of “l’allegro”), the contemplative (“il penseroso”) and the moderate — Morris shows us we can ultimately choose how we relate to the world. We can choose mirth. He did: In its original form, Handel’s opus ends with the voice of “il Moderato,” urging us to seek truth and reason. Morris’s rearrangement makes for a more powerful dance, for sure. But it is also a gift to the audience. It’s a call to action. Life needn’t claim us, even if we suffer as we’ve seen in the work’s darker moments. The choice of how we live it is ours.

This remarkable work is infused with youthfulness, in the antic play of the dancers and the pastel costumes. (The cast changes from subdued shades in part one to candy colors in part two.) That vibrancy is echoed in the rich hues of the scrims that slide into place behind the dancers or, at times, between them, to create a translucent divide.

Morris was only 32 when he created “L’Allegro” in 1988. (A little perspective: Michelangelo was 29 when he carved his “David.” But that’s Michelangelo!) It was the first work he produced while on a three-year contract in Brussels, as the dance director of Belgium’s state theater. Generous government coffers allowed him resources beyond the dreams of American dance troupes — thus “L’Allegro” is an uncommonly full theatrical experience. The two-hour spectacle is performed here — for the first time in 13 years — with 24 dancers (an expansion of the group’s 18), the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, the Washington Bach Consort Chorus and four magnificent soloists (sopranos Christine Brandes and Lisa Saffer, tenor John Mc­Veigh and baritone Thomas Meglioranza).

Young Morris was in­cred­ibly wise to what the human body can do. There are many passages in “L’Allegro” of ebullient release and rush, but there is also witty make-believe. As Handel’s music tumbles and gallops around the English countryside, the dancers entwine themselves into trees and bushes, panting hounds, fugitive foxes, undulating waterways and fire flickering in the hearth. And birds — so many lovely birds, the dancers swooping and diving, lifted high or engaged in solitary preening that soon draws an avian crowd. No one is onstage alone for long.

As the evening progresses, the stage, framed in receding arches that hint at the infinite, becomes a microcosm of earthly life. Life as humans experience it, in Milton’s day, in Handel’s, and in our own. It’s not always flattering: In one scene the men slug it out, then kiss, then slug some more. We’re confused! In another, the women enthusiastically embrace whatever man rolls on top of them. We’re fickle! But Morris doesn’t judge. The quarrelsome men and warm women are treated with a light touch.

As impressive as his craftsmanship can be, it is never more moving, I find, than in the simplest moments. A couple of the most beautiful musical passages elicit finely measured walking dances where we can see ourselves most clearly, see the nobility of thoughtful action.

The dancers move through outdoor pleasures and domestic comforts, but also darkness, mystery and grief. Moments before “L’Allegro’s” ecstatic ending, we’re shown a tragi-comic tableau — a rhythmic pantomime of Orpheus, the mythological musician, forever losing his beloved Eurydice, whom he thought he had saved from Hades. Milton’s lyric mentions the “half-regain’d” Eurydice, but Morris goes further, showing us that half-regained is, in fact, wholly gone. This vision goes by fast, though, and the symbolism is easily missed. But even if the full meaning is not clear, the sense of a sudden, shattering loss is.

Then: Brightness. Order springs from disorder, and it’s wonderfully simple. A chain of hands, dancers wheeling in circles within circles. They lean into the music, and fast as they’re spinning, you can’t miss the delight on their faces. It’s sweet surrender. And victory for all.

The Mark Morris Dance Group performs “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” to music by Handel at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Saturday. 202-467-4600. www.
kennedy-center.org
.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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