Friday, June 28, 2013

A Hovering Dream: The Mark Morris Dance Group in Toronto

Mark Morris Dance Group performing L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Photo by Ken Friedman.)

Brooklyn’s Mark Morris Dance Group closed the 2013 edition of Toronto’s Luminato Festival last weekend with a bang. The 20-member company performed the Canadian debut of one its signature works, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, set to the eponymous George Frideric Handel oratorio. On this occasion, it was played live by Toronto’s baroque orchestra and chamber choir, Tafelmusik, and conducted by Jane Glover with soloists Karina Gauvin, Shannon Mercer, Thomas Cooley and Douglas Williams gorgeously singing the set of odes by English poet, John Milton.

Recognized as one of the greatest American choreographers of the late 20th century, Morris is inspired by music, first. To have at his disposal an orchestra of such a high calibre, every inch as committed to the music at hand as he is, produced fireworks. The audience at Toronto’s Sony Centre jumped to its feet following the first of three shows which commenced last Friday night. As the crowd dispersed into the night, people could be heard exclaiming how moved they were. (The words “beautiful” and “spectacular” hung in the air.) Morris, who took a curtain bow with his dancers, grinning from ear to bearded ear, dressed in sandals, a long scarf and flowing white shirt with pants, was likely not surprised. Since its debut in 1988 as a sprawling, epic-style work performed in bare feet which he created when he was a 32-year-old dance director of Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has risen to among the top of the heap of original dance creations. The work is a modern masterpiece.

In a pre-show interview, Morris unabashedly called the hype deserving. “It’s a great work! One of the best dance pieces around!” You really can’t argue with him. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is a wholly engaging spectacle of dance, song, music and theatrical design: a wonder work rooted in the baroque but made for our times. Adrianne Lobel’s simple, panelled Mondrian-esque set and James F. Ingalls’ multi-coloured lighting enhance the choreography which is infused with balletic, modern and musical theatre idioms shot through with Eastern European folk dance traditions. There are 32 scenes, broken into two parts with an intermission in between. The dances circle, zigzag, divide the stage into neat line formations, leap and roll. The intricate movement patterns lend themselves to a portrait of the human condition as interpreted by the gregariousness of Morris’s all-embracing humanism.

The music is the main impetus, and Morris approaches it almost literally, propelling the dance forward on the syncopated rhythms of Handel’s 1740 score. He also derives inspiration from Milton, using the visual imagery painted by the words to produce danced pictures in the choreography. Lines like “Mirth, with thee we mean to live,” yield pastoral romps with comic flourishes while conversely the sung words, “Come, pensive nun, devout and pure/Sober, steadfast, and demure” produce a movement passage that is slower paced, and reflective, as instructed by the score. Milton also writes lushly of nature and the dance often humorously recreates evocations of “Meadows trim with daisies pied/Shallow brooks, and rivers wide” with dancers standing stock-still, their limbs bent and fingers splayed to look like the trees in the poet’s garden. There is slapstick hilarity when dancers are on all-fours pretending to be dogs, one of which relieving himself on said trees. The scene is a direct translation of Milton’s poetic lines, “To listen how the hounds and horn/Cheerly rouse the slumb'ring morn,” which Morris has recast as farce. Another very funny scene occurs when a group of men slap and punch each other and then hold hands to prance about the stage, the homoerotic overtones notwithstanding, like stooges in a vaudeville act. The fluctuating moods and oscillation between light and dark episodes keeps the dance intriguing, start to close. It is as pleasurable to look at as listen to. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato bathes the viewer in the kind of bucolic bliss often alluded to by the score, no doubt contributing to its everlasting popularity. It’s a hovering dream, to paraphrase Milton.

Handel’s music and Milton‘s poetry together suggest that human life is not unlike nature in that it has different emotional seasons. The Allegro in the title is spirited and joyful, the springtime of human experience. The Penseroso segment is its opposite, a period of quiet reflection, the winter of the soul. Both present opposing but complimentary points of view of the human condition. Ensuring that neither mind-set dominates is the Moderato in the title, a word that means, literally, moderation in all things. This is the golden rule espoused by the piece as a whole, and it is a message effectively communicated by dancing that while technically superb and proficient is never showy, never dancing for dancing’s sake.

choreographer Mark Morris
The dancers – 10 men and 10 women – dance as an ensemble. There are no dancing stars; the dancers have an Everyman/woman appeal. They come in all shapes and sizes – tall, short, slim, curvy. They are a United Nations of colours – black, white, yellow, red. While Morris gets his dancers to dance as a group, there is no denying that he also wants them to revel in their individuality. They are not cookie cutter ballet dancers. They all have varying hair styles, for instance: long, short, braided and curls gone wild. Each is dressed in costumes of chiffon and organza designed by Christine Van Loon in varying degrees of colour. “I’ve been accused of having a company that looks like people, and that’s a crime in some circles, apparently, as though they should be weimaraner,” Morris said with characteristic irreverence during a public interview that took place in Toronto in advance of his company’s performances and which was covered in The Globe and Mail. “I guess all dancers are supposed to be a particular height, which is unvarying, a particular race, which isn’t very colourful, and a particular sex, which is female. I find that a little limiting. My company looks like the people who got off the bus – the dance bus – and they can dance fabulously. It’s a coveted job. The total number of permanent dancers in the United States is probably a few hundred. The last audition I held – for two women positions – 600 people came. And a lot of them were quite good.”

The even better ones are now dancing for him. And they are delightful. Some of them are given their own dances to do, Dallas McMurray, for example, who on Friday night exquisitely danced the bird solo, and Laurel Lynch who performed the Mountains segment. Other stand outs were Michelle Yard who opened the second act with a scene known as the gorgeous tragedy, and Brian Lawson who did Populous Cities. Elsewhere, other dancers, among them Lauren Grant are highlighted by serving as mirror images of each other, one standing in front of and the other poised behind a smoky scrim. The mirror imagery repeats, underscoring the rock-solid structural underpinnings of Morris’deceptively free-and-easy work. But the mirror idea also reminds that the work is about us. We in the audience are to see ourselves reflected in it. And we do, and it is why we smile, seeing our humanity so brilliantly represented.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check for more book updates.

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