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Light, Color, Joy

Mark Morris Dance Group delighted the audience at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday, March 24th, with the return of “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso il Moderato.” The performance was a reminder of the reassuring effects of good repertory: coming once again, like spring, to revive us with light, color, and joy.

Performance

Mark Morris Dance Group: “L'Allegro, Il Penseroso il Moderato.”

Place

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, March 24, 2022

Words

Candice Thompson

Mark Morris Dance Group performs “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

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The work premiered in Brussels in 1988—with choreography by Mark Morris to the music of George Frideric Handel’s composition of the same name, a pastoral ode after poems by John Milton, rearranged by Charles Jennens—before making its U.S. premiere at BAM in 1990.

The sensory delights began the moment the musicians started tuning their instruments. The curtain rose on a dim empty stage, the mood suspenseful, even though I had a feeling most of this hometown audience was familiar with what was to follow. The lights came up as dancers rushed across the stage, arms outstretched, until a couple crashed into one another. The charged moment of recognition was a veritable bolt of lightning, dispersing all assembled.

Maile Okamura and Shaquelle Charles in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” by Mark Morris. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

The importance of entrances and exits in this dance cannot be overstated. They were a constant feature as they related so directly to the music, employed in both the changes between the L’Allegro (meaning “the happy man” in Italian) and the Il Penseroso (“the melancholy man”) sections and the shifts in voices. The dancers moved on and off stage in both dramatic and pedestrian styles: they ran, they unspooled, they rolled. In one glorious section, they surged across the stage in waves of virtuosic lifts, the women soaring high above the men’s heads.

The evening-length work created a sublime world so full of form and symmetry that I wanted to see nearly every sequence again for pure enjoyment, but also to better understand its immaculate craft. Morris obliged this instinct and his use of repetition, and copious amounts of canon, only added to the abundance. Early on, the women entered with big smiles for a section of unison dancing; flinging their limbs with abandon and rolling on the floor like happy babies, they were immediately followed by the men mirroring their movements. In the second half, the dancers formed two diagonal lines that turned into an undulating snake, winding and unwinding itself. Like a sacred sand painting, the stage was wiped clean and the iconic ritual repeated. And during the section that included the aforementioned lifts, the flying was performed on repeat with seemingly infinite variations until the witty final pass simply had the men showing the mechanics of the partnering without their partners, hands pressing the air.

Mark Morris Dance Group performs “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

The dancers were costumed by Christine Van Loon in jewel tones according to gender, with the men in tights and silky blouses with a contrasting-colored belt, and the women in gauzy two-toned dresses of varying necklines. The traditional casting and dressing complemented the vocabulary of mostly classical shapes and movements, nods to folk dancing, while still accentuating Morris’s tendency to subvert norms. In one long vignette that began with Mica Berna and Karlie Budge hiding out in a forest of dancers—the trees and bushes made from the intertwined arms and legs—a kind of love story unfolded. Successful in their efforts to evade the hounds intent on sniffing them out—where yes, more dancers embodied the animals to laughter all around—they found one another’s hand. Separated by an arriving flood of dancers, they both climbed up on top of those dancers as if ascending stairs, only to fall back and be caught. Their supine bodies were pulsed up and down to the music before being swept up in twin shoulder sit-style lifts. Once the women were back on the ground, the ensemble quickly melted into what looked like a mountain range, formed by draping bodies. The women rushed to meet once again, face to face, before running off to the sound and image of a landslide, as the ensemble dropped to the ground.

Clarity and simplicity defined the performances of the MMDG dancers. Standouts like Maile Okamura and Sarah Haarman brought an added layer of effortlessness to the unadorned, unaffected style. The dancers belonged to this world, and their confidence in their roles made the work resonate with an overwhelming range of emotions without feeling overbearing.

Sarah Haarmann, Maile Okamura and Mica Bernas with Mark Morris Dance Group in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

“L’Allegro” is often referred to as a masterpiece or master work and modified with adjectives like timeless and classic. The many comedic elements did not age the work or betray these notions. When a group of men paired off to mime fake kisses and dramatic fights, only to be followed by a circle of butt slapping, it was the ridiculous mixing of gender and sexual stereotypes that made it as outrageous now as it must have seemed thirty years ago. Many other hilarious moments were just that—flicks of the wrist, tilts of the head, last-minute swaps for a more preferred partner. Some good humor was also incapsulated in the immaculate timing of Dallas McMurray’s bird.

Likewise, the brilliant minimalist set and lighting design, by Adrianne Lobel and James F. Ingall’s respectively, with saturated colors and layers of scrims and panels, was eternal. At one point near the end, a purple square outlined in yellow was accented with a grid of yellow squares dropping down in front. Soon the purple was replaced with a yellow background, making the yellow squares seem even more vibrant than when they appeared as a contrast to the darker color. The whole experience was like seeing the plates of Joseph Albers’s Interaction of Color come to life.

But these fine elements of design and choreography would have been less lively without the brilliance of the MMDG Music Ensemble with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street with Downtown Voices. Conducted by MMDG music director Colin Fowler, sopranos Sarah Bradley and Yulia Van Doren, along with tenor Brian Giebler and bass-baritone Joseph Charles Beutel, were stars shining bright in this mythical universe.

I left the opera house buoyant from the absorption of so much beauty brought to life onstage. For an evening, Morris, his collaborators, and his ebullient company of dancers, brought a much-needed balance to our troubled world.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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