Dancing a score: Mark Morris Dance Group’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”

Reviewed in this essay: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Mark Morris Dance Group, which ran June 2013 at Canadian Stage as part of the Luminato Festival

During the most recent Luminato Festival, the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) finally reconnected with Canadian audiences after an absence of nearly two decades.  L’Allegro exemplifies Morris’ commitment to music, the starting point for all of his pieces.  The grand scale of this piece, requiring the collaboration of 24 dancers, 25 singers, and 20 orchestra members continues to lend appeal long after its initial performance in 1988 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.

For this particular performance, Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra illuminated Handel’s score, while the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir brilliantly sang Milton’s pastoral odes in accompaniment.

Luminato 2013 LAllegro Mark Morris Dance Group 15 - Photo by Elaine MaysonHandel’s score was never meant for dancing, although you’d never know from L’Allegro’s choreography.  Morris’ dancing explicated the score by mirroring repeated musical themes with repeated movement phrases.  He illustrated particular phrases by, for instance, pulling a solo dancer out of the ensemble to interact with a solo violin.

In conversation with Gerald Richter, AD of the Brussels Opera, during his “Evening Illumination” event on the Wednesday prior to L’Allegro’s Luminato opening, Morris spoke of the relationship between dance and music in his work.  In Morris’ words, it is never his intention for the dance to express the music, but rather “to bring the emotion through the dance, back to the music.”

That is precisely the feeling one gets while watching L’Allegro.  No more than five minutes into the performance, I felt for the first time that I was watching music.  There was a breathtaking synchronicity between the musicians and the dancers.  “I find a lot of music meant for dancing to be undanceable,” said Morris, clearly preferring complex layers of instrumentation to fodder his choreography.

His sense of humour is perhaps the only element that cannot be traced back directly to the music.  The court garden scene stands out as the clearest example of Morris’ sense of play.  At one point, dancers scurried across the floor like a pack of dogs on a leash.  As they stopped beside the other dancers configured as trees and abruptly lifted a leg toward them, the Sony Centre filled with laughter.

Morris emphasized during his talk that this text by Milton would never have existed without Handel’s score and vice versa, so why separate them today? With L’Allegro, he set out to reveal the natural affinities between singing, music, and dance, but because of disciplinary divisions inherent in performance markets and funding structures, it is rare to see a work with so many artistic collaborators.

Morris was blunt about the near impossibility of creating this type of work in America, as well as simply keeping a dance company alive today.  This ambitious piece would not exist were it not for its incubation in the Brussels Opera before MMDG began touring it elsewhere.  This is why we need him around Canada more often—to remind artists and audiences alike that there are benefits of dreaming big, and that we must demand the funding to do so.