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Mark Morris Dance Group

'L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato'

with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington Bach Consort Chorus

by Carmel Morgan

January 26, 2012-- Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

If the test of good choreography is wanting to see a dance over and over and over again, then Mark Morris passes that test with “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” his 1988 masterwork to the music of George Frideric Handel and the poems of John Milton. Morris, his dancers, and his collaborators (set design by Adrianne Lobel, costume design by Christine Van Loon, and lighting design by James F. Ingalls) all deserve an A+. The standing ovation following the January 2012 performance at Washington’s Kennedy Center certainly reflected that grade.

Lobel’s set design provided a series of mat board-inspired borders that framed different sections of the dance. Scrims also dropped and raised, further providing structure for the contemporary baroque-driven work. The music may be old, but Morris’s choreography gives it vibrancy. The feelings Milton referred to in his poems, of course, still exist today. We all know the feelings of mirth and melancholy, for example. And the phrase “[w]ith wanton heed, and giddy cunning” very fittingly describes the mood of this Morris work (and perhaps Morris himself?).

By chance, I was seated almost directly behind Morris during the performance (and during the second half behind pregnant dancer Lauren Grant, who is now on leave). There was no mistaking Morris for anyone else, especially in his neon-hued pink shirt. Although I had my eyes on the dancers, I could not help but glance at Morris now and then. He seemed very attuned to the music. I noticed a little head nod here and there, and an occasional flick of a conductor’s wrist. Morris is well known for his love of music, and it’s his connection to music that makes him able to miraculously translate music into the language of dance. When you’re watching a Morris work, you’re transported. His movement traces the music (arms hiccup in syncopated beats) and plays with it, too (dancers engage in edgy antics – not in time to the music, but in the spirit of it). In the end, you feel you’ve grasped the music, or even inhabited it.

In the first part of “L’Allegro,” the dancers appeared in earthy browns, purples, golds, and blues. The women wore flowy mid-length dresses in a single color, with a second color peeking beneath the hem. In the peppier second part, the dancers appeared in the same designs, this time in Easter egg colors. The lighting changed, too, between the parts. Part Two seemed brighter, in accordance with its more jovial vibe.

I loved seeing repeated elements in the work. A peculiar sort of lunge, with one hand extended to the floor and the other on back of a hip, struck me as appealing, and I happily spied it several times. Another thing I loved was the use of humor. There were too many moments that spread a grin across my face to count! One favorite bit of humor: dancers became a landscape – I saw hills and trees – through which other dancers moved. Hounds? Oh, yes, men crawled on their hands and knees, hurtling about like eager dogs on a hunt. This picture was hilarious, and perfectly executed. Also bringing a wide grin to my face (and tons of laughter from the audience) was a sequence in which male dancers slapped each other and smacked each other’s rear ends. They then quickly made up, swinging hands. This brought a welcome departure from the decorum of the piece. Dallas McMurray, in an endearing solo, delivered another favorite bit of quirkiness. His gestures were unambiguously bird-like. He jumped in tiny circles, flapped his arms, and titled his head at an angle. He did it resplendently. Such fun moments truly embodied the ebullience of the music.

While I adore Morris’s plucky wit, if I had to choose, I would choose as my very favorite moments in “L’Allegro,” not the comedy, but the purely divine. Like a certain chord can make your heart sing, Morris can choreograph movement that makes your soul soar. In the first half, groups of women, assisted by a smoky scrim and smart lighting, became mirror images, one solid in the foreground, one faded in the background, as if seen through a prism. Trios of women spun round and round. Witnessing this was dizzying, in a good way, and it satisfied my desire for exquisite dancing. In the second half, the dancers assembled an “x.” In diagonals, they crossed in a kind of promenade. Their streaming past each other, lines merging and parting, moved me to tears. All I could think was that I wanted to see this breathtaking choreography again, and I hope I will!

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