L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

The Mark Morris Dance Group at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Thursday, August 5.

I knew there was a reason I kept attending performances of Mark Morris’s choreography. Even when a particular work didn’t click for me, I always saw something intriguing there—the musicality, the pared-down aesthetic—and now I’ve finally stumbled across a Morris work I love passionately and wholeheartedly. In L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed it Moderato, all the characteristics of his style that I dislike fade into the background, and the traits I admire move to the forefront. And despite the fact that it’s a long nonnarrative, two-act work, it’s never dull. L’Allegro is a gorgeous mosaic—with funny, playful passages and sad, delicate passages; subtle, thoughtful passages and joyful, exuberant passages—and all the disparate little tiles somehow fit together with perfect coherence, becoming more beautiful and revealing new truths in one another’s company.

Set to Handel’s oratorio setting of Milton’s pair of contrasting poems, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is an elaborate exploration of the duality of humanity and, more broadly, nature itself. Joys and sorrows, day and night, comedy and tragedy, larks and nightingales—the seventeenth-century language finds new vibrancy in the eighteenth-century music, which is itself invigorated by the twentieth-century dance. Cross-century collaboration can be awkward, but here it’s stunningly effective. Morris might be a modern dance choreographer, but his attention to form and structure lets itself well to the forms and structure of Baroque and Classical music. His dancers follow the contours of Handel’s music not just in individual phrases but also in the larger compositional arcs of the individual movements—quite elegantly done.

As for Milton’s text, it’s charmingly expressive, describing all the world, from cities to countryside, with frequent invocations of figures from Greek mythology. Handel sometimes takes a broadly abstract approach to the text, but he can be adorably literal as well—meandering melismas on the word wander, elaborate flute solos accompanying the lines about birds—and Morris follows his example. During an air about a fox hunt, dancers play the parts of the hounds and their quarry and the people following on horseback (it’s very cute), but most other passages are nonrepresentational, with dancers following patterns and shapes rather than playing characters, per se. The patterning is exquisite. Morris makes particularly great use of circles—side by side, interlocking, concentric—playing with their connotative meanings of purity and perfection with understated grace.

Morris’s choreography is rarely showy. Some steps are almost childishly simple-looking, little hops and skips pulsing to the beat of the music, but they’re so much more than that. Morris’s musicality, the dancers’ nimble precision, and broader view of the stage as a whole give the choreography incredible beauty. The sweetly simple costumes and James Ingalls’s quietly dramatic lighting provide memorable filigrees to an already impressive work.

But what really struck me about L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was how moving it was. The nightingale episode, in which the bird seems to contemplate its own Platonic ideal, is surprisingly poignant. The finale, with all the twining and circling, immediately brought to mind the impossible perfection of the music of the spheres. The first act finale, though, was my favorite.

And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holyday,
Till the livelong daylight fail,
Thus past the day, to bed they creep,
By whisp’ring winds soon lull’d asleep.

The chorus sings Milton’s poetry, voices blending in warm harmonies. The bright yellow light fades to a dreamy blue, and the dancers circle in pairs, one partner gently cradling the other in a simple lift and then, after a few beats of walking together, reversing the gesture, with the second cradling the first. Tender and intimate, both nurturing and sensual, the choreography takes recognizable everyday movements, refines them, and elevates them to art. The scene is almost unbearably lovely, and indeed, it was in that moment, after several years of respecting Mark Morris, that I finally came to love him.