Anatomy of a Mark Morris masterpiece

He brings his glorious adaptation of Handel's Allegro-Penseroso to the Paramount, in a collaboration with the Seattle Symphony. This amazing work, which defiantly launched Morris' international career in 1988, still gracefully bears its heavy reputation.
Crosscut archive image.

A performance of <i>L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato</i> by the Mark Morris Dance Group. (Ken Friedman)

He brings his glorious adaptation of Handel's Allegro-Penseroso to the Paramount, in a collaboration with the Seattle Symphony. This amazing work, which defiantly launched Morris' international career in 1988, still gracefully bears its heavy reputation.

It was while he was based in Seattle for a period in the mid-'80s that native son Mark Morris initially heard a recording of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. But local audiences had to wait six years after the world premiere of the monumental ballet Handel's music inspired to see what all the fuss was about. (The Seattle debut took place in October 1994 at Meany Hall.) And now, 20 years on, the Mark Morris Dance Group has officially teamed up for the first time with the Seattle Symphony under music director Gerard Schwarz (although members of the orchestra in fact played in the Meany Hall debut). Together they performed L'Allegro this past weekend at the Paramount, inaugurating a new partnership under the auspices of Seattle Theatre Group.

Clearly the segmentation strategy that the SSO's planners have started pursuing — with particular programs targeted toward distinct audience groups rather than a generic base of "music lovers" — meshes neatly with Mark Morris's famous insistence on live music. The prospect of supportive funding (including, by American standards, positively luxurious amounts of rehearsal time with the orchestra) was, after all, what made the company's residency at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels so alluring during its first decade. With L'Allegro they defiantly burst on the scene there in November 1988 and inaugurated a controversial tenure whose critics laced their attacks with a good dose of anti-American venom.

But L'Allegro was a hit from the start and has been all but canonized by now. Routinely referred to as Morris's most significant masterpiece, the ballet has been performed from Tel Aviv to New Zealand and is documented in a gorgeously produced volume of critical and photographic essays, in which dance critic Alastair Macaulay declares he thinks of L'Allegro "in the same breath" as Wagner's Ring. This 20th-anniversary revival in Seattle brought a series of related events in its wake, from master classes and scholarly symposia on the work's cultural significance to an exhibit of photographic portraits of the choreographer in the Paramount's lobby.

The ballet gracefully bears its heavy reputation; in fact, it remains as fresh as ever in this latest iteration. From the perspective of the ongoing rediscovery of the immense theatrical potential in Handel's operas and oratorios, Morris's prescience seems all the more uncanny. It's hard to recall how improbable the original concept must have seemed: Only a Mark Morris could have mustered the spunk to build a full-length ballet, at a pivotal moment in his career, on a little-known work of Handel that has no plot.

L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is a quasi-oratorio (technically, a "pastoral ode") written in the unbelievably short span of less than a month. It dates from 1740, a period when the marketplace was forcing Handel to fashion a substitute for his beloved opera. The literary source is a pair of lushly imagistic pastoral poems John Milton wrote in 1631, long before Paradise Lost, while he was still a student at Cambridge. "L'Allegro" ("The Happy Person") and "Il Penseroso" ("The Contemplative Person") are separate but complementary poetic portraits of two opposite personality types or "humors," which by extension become opposite ways of looking at the world. (On the Myers-Briggs scale, they might be classified as extrovert versus introvert.)

Handel had his librettist Charles Jennens (also responsible for Messiah) splice the texts together in alternating dialogue so as to create a semblance of dramatic tension. Jennens then added his own verses to suggest a third voice ("Il Moderato") meant to be a rational balance between the two.

Morris's 32-number ballet drops the third "Moderato" section but salvages two numbers of its best music, one for each of the ballet's two parts (in later revivals Handel himself deleted "Il Moderato" to replace it with his Ode for St. Cecilia's Day). More telling is Morris's flipping of the final numbers in Part Two so that, after an extended Penseroso sequence, Allegro gets the last word (the reverse is the case in Handel).

What continues to send audiences into a blissed-out state — as this weekend's performances did — is the generous, teeming fertility of Morris's imagination and the ensemble-focused brio with which his two dozen barefoot dancers realize it onstage. L'Allegro is a Mulligan stew of physical vocabularies with its mix of highbrow and pop, folk dance, mugging, aerobic vaults and pogo sticking leaps, pantomime gestures, even hints of American Sign Language. Moreover, Morris dwells on imagery not only from Handel's score — which includes some of his most sensually vivid evocations of natural settings — but from Milton's poetry and also from the watercolors William Blake made to illustrate it (the latter's image of the young poet dreaming seems to influence some of the more hallucinatory sequences).

All of which might have resulted in some sort of confused hybrid. But Morris teases this miscellany into a tightly ordered, organic continuity. Embedded in all the profusion is an economic set of gestural motifs — sometimes mimetic (rolling on the floor in the laughter chorus), sometimes more oblique — which transform to suggest links between separate numbers. (Morris describes himself as "a real structure queen.") Like Handel, he moves beyond the pretext of a straightforward morality play to celebrate the validity of each moment within this spectrum of human experience. The joyfully secular bustle of the "populous cities" has its match in the austere beauty of the "basilica" number as the ensemble lofts its collective gaze to the sound of a pealing organ (evocatively played by Joseph Adam).

The ballet's "argument" isn't about choosing sides — either to dance in "a sunshine holyday" or to sit shuttered in front of hearths that "teach light to counterfeit a gloom." Rather, it's about understanding how each informs the other in the mutable course of our lives, against the awesome backdrop of the entire universe. That, perhaps, is what lies behind L'Allegro's constant swapping of partners and, even more, Morris's obsessive use of mirroring figures, like the haunting encounter between the lark and the nightingale. His humor is infectious (the audience erupted in giggles in the number known by the company as "The Stupid Men's Dance," where a circle of would-be warriors alternates in a fit of kissing, punching, and butt-slapping). But even in the uproariously choreographed fox-hunting scene, the would-be victims (again, doubled) are spared only for the day. The magical finale to Part One, with its tinkling glockenspiel chorus, leaves us with a spectacle of revelers lulled to sleep in a position that is not only peaceful but deathlike.

The original design team's work beautifully homes in on the ballet's aesthetic. Adrianne Lobel's scrims and drops, framed by a series of portals, employ a subtly shifting parade of Rothko-ish color fields. Neatly reinforced by James F. Ingalls's lighting, they establish a literal spectrum of emotional temperatures and, like Morris's choreography, can be representational or abstract (or in between). Christine van Loon's elegant silk chiffon costumes (with double-layer dresses for the women) transform gradually from muted Penseroso colors in Part One to the dominantly cheerful Allegro hues of Part Two.

Morris is justifiably renowned for his keenly musical sensibility (it's even been used to critique his work). What's especially striking here is the broad, unpredictable range of gestures he uses to translate every nuance of Handel's score, from dancer David Leventhal's avian head-wriggling for a passage of ornate trills to the spinning concentric circles filling the stage in the finale, a counterpart to the fanfaring trumpets and drums.

From the pit, Schwarz presided over a mostly reliable reading with a reduced orchestra of some 28 players, coping with the mushy acoustics of the Paramount. His grasp of Handel's architectural span was convincing (and especially effective in the one fugal movement, Penseroso's final chorus, which featured some finely terraced singing by the Seattle Symphony Chorale). But I found his inconsistent attention to moment-by-moment details and contrasts frustrating. Flaccid articulation and attack in this rhythmically rich score become all the more noticeable in counterpoint to Morris's energetic choreography.

The quartet of soloists for this aria-centered piece featured a luxury-cast line-up of sopranos Christine Brandes and Lisa Saffer, tenor John McVeigh, and baritone James Maddalena (who sang in the world premiere). All sang with deep responsiveness to the text; McVeigh, with his generous portion of arias making the case for Mirth, left an especially powerful stamp on the music.


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