Mark Morris Dance Group
“L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, May 09
Photo: Ken Friedman
I reach inside my coat pocket for my notepad. It’s small and beat-up, and darn, I don’t have my favorite pen. Inside that pad are the scribbles of previously reviewed shows that I attempt to decipher into critical reviews the morning after. I approach Zellerbach Hall, alive with a rush of excitement from the trendy and sophisticated theater crowd. Looking at my worn notepad I feel like a scrawny David looking down at a few stones in his hand as he approaches Goliath. Goliath in this case being the monolithic Mark Morris, and his much acclaimed “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” The piece has been hailed by Wall Street Journal as “a masterwork on a scale hardly known in the U.S.”, and described others as “rapturously received” and nothing less than “a masterpiece”.
Adding height to this intimidating Goliath - which features Handel’s score, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, John Milton’s poetry, set design inspired by the paintings of William Blake, 24 dancers, the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, two sopranos, a tenor and bass soloist - is a photo exhibition of the performance by two photographers, and an unprecedented distinction for Cal Performances of hosting this work for the fourth time. “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” is so big and opulent that it appears to be even recession proof during our current financial downturn.
This dance spectacle has been in repertory for 21 years and has stomped its way around the world winning London’s Time Out magazine’s “#1 Dance Event” for 1990, along with Britain’s, Laurence Olivier Award. So, maybe I should just turn back, not even see this phenomenon and simply post, “A must see dance experience!” For God’s sake, even the woman I end up sitting next to has seen this piece five times over the past ten years!
The truth is, I want to be smashed by the giant “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” I want everyone who has raved about this piece to be right! Then the orchestra strikes up Handel’s Overture and I am instantly swept up into Adriannne Lobel’s set of drops and scrims of different hues that dance perfectly with the atmospheric lighting designed by James F. Ingalls.
Although this set design was originally inspired by Blake’s watercolors that illustrated Milton’s poem, it appears to be more influenced by the lyrical abstract work of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park Series” – paintings known for their geometric style, color fields, and aerial landscape.
In front, behind, and between these square and rectangular moving drops and scrims dancers emerge apparition-like. These dusty jewel-tone veils move at different rates and heights as tableaus and vignettes mirror one another up and down stage as if separated by fog, time, or the vagueness of memory. They frame and conceal, create the spatial quality of time, the weightless density of dreams, and draw a fine line of moderation between social happiness (Allegro) and “divine melancholy” - the secluded contemplative life – referred to by Milton as “il Penseroso.”
Christine Van Loon’s costumes are like brush strokes of the same dusty hues and suit the whimsical, light-footed and Bungee-cord nature of Morris’ choreography -- a choreography that in the hour-long Part 1 is flawless, as dancers come together and apart as effortlessly as dandelion parachutes blowing, one, then three, then all into the wind, or rewinding from the wind back into one original starburst cluster. Each gesture is either a flamboyant interpretation of the libretto or a snappy punctuation of Handel’s count. Like a flock of birds about to migrate, one male dances solo like a gay bird primping before fluttering away, then a pair of neck-craning women perform a pas de deux , then a few more, then all flap and are gone - then one flies back.
The “Masterpiece” manifests itself in Part 1 and because it is so brilliant one does not want it to end. And so the audience sits through Part 2 with the same joyous smile from before intermission, possibly not realizing that that frozen grin is getting a bit harder to hold, or uncritical of how Handel’s music - though uplifting - becomes overkill in its repetitive nature. Moreover, we have to shift through more superfluous movement before reaching the hysterical slapstick moment when an all-male ensemble kiss and peck each other on the lips or rhythmically slap each other’s booty.
Part 2 is nearly as long in length as Part 1 and starts off with more clutter in both set and in the choreography. The costumes have changed their colors and the set has bars and grids overlaid onto the drops. As if foreshadowing the upcoming performance, the gold cubes on the scrim are a bit off, some corners sag, the grid is not crisp and the corner edges do not line up as they are intended. Yet, by now it is too late to whine about idealized perfection, the audience has been gathered up into Goliath’s large and competent hands - thinking we too can fly as carefree as the dancers - and so we leap into thin air shouting, “Bravo!”