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Dance review: Mark Morris Dance Group performs ‘L’Allegro’ with L.A. Opera

May 6, 2011 |  2:16 pm

Morris

"L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," choreographer Mark Morris' highly regarded dance work set to George Frideric Handel's sprawling baroque score, zoomed to "masterpiece" status at its debut in 1988; it's a biggie, a must, we're told. In Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend, the lucky dance maker had as his collaborator the Los Angeles Opera -- its orchestra, choir and four gifted solo singers.

"L'Allegro," restaged in honor of Mark Morris Dance Group's 30th anniversary, unfolded in two generous halves, the first lengthier. The work's nice-and-easy pacing came as a blessing to the jumpy, text-messaging generation: OMG, Handel rocks!

Morris delivered his big meal in dollops that illustrated a paired set of odes by English poet John Milton. The "L'Allegro" bit connoted the vivacious, actively led life; the "Penseroso," the contemplative and introverted. Based on these truly lovely poems (as program inserts, unreadable in the dark theater), Handel spun his sublime score. Enter a librettist, Charles Jennens, who authored the "il Moderato" text, which advocates a middle path between extremes. (Are you getting all this, children?) The unutterably ambitious Morris united all this heady content when he was a 32-year-old dance director of Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.

On Thursday night, Morris showed his best known pure-dance mode by moving his 24 dancers through stage patterns suggestive of Busby Berkeley with Central European folk-dance roots. An impressive softness in the barefooted pitter-patter added to the work's initial serenity, and Morris' circular, zig-zagged and flat-lined patterns pleased.

L'Allegro Morris' fascination with the duality of his material found form in his use of mirrored dance shapes, and in his oscillation in tonality between darkness and light. But impatience mounted as the choreographer never loosened his grip. Further, the episodes rolled out sideways, with no particular arc. Hands tucked on waists, elbows out, faces in profile, the dancers shuffled in fiendish patterns, bah-dump, bah-dump on the downbeat, and a deadpan look emerged. Even before intermission, the disempowered troupers didn't seem to have any skin in the game. 

Morris then swapped to the work's other prime modality, the bucolic mise-en-scène, transformed into a classical painting by set designer Adrianne Lobel's sharply rectangular stage frames. James F. Ingalls' luminous high-contrast lighting signaled new moods. The infamous hunt scene ensued, but it all felt very far away with the orchestra interceding. Dancers embodied trees, and the boys played hound dogs, not a very far stretch for young men. There was humor, like the dogs finding relief on stage, so predictable you laughed in advance.

Despite the soloists' ethereal renderings, only bass-baritone John Relyea got his mouth around Milton's words. Sopranos Hei-Kyung Hong, Sarah Coburn and tenor Barry Banks fell short. This mattered; Morris worked closely in illustrating the text. The string-and-woodwind-dominated orchestra excelled. Every time the choir piped in, the experience improved. Lip-syncing conductor Grant Gershon may have been sweatier than the dancers by night's end.

"Sweet bird, that shun'st the noise of folly, most musical, most melancholy!" warbled Hong. Dancer Julia Warden soloed, garbed in Christine Van Loon's pretty-enough duo-colored shifts that rippled when Morris set the girls flying. The men's tights, cummerbunds and toga-tops did not flatter across the board. I didn't get the garish color palette.

By the time we reached the coda, "Mirth, with thee we mean to live," indicating the triumph of the "L'Allegro" faction, the magnificent music trumped the dance. Bound like stuffed animals throughout the evening, the dancers receded and Handel's horns burst forth, displacing choreography. The sound filled not only our ears, but miraculously, our every sense, including our eyes.

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Mark Morris' wedding of music and movement

-- Debra Levine

Mark Morris Dance Group in collaboration with L.A. Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $30 to $120. Information: (213) 972-0711 or www.musiccenter.org

Photos: The Mark Morris Dance group performs "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Credit: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times

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