Diva of the Dance

The Mark Morris Dance Group

It took nearly 400 years to create the work of art that will be seen and heard and felt at Jones Hall this weekend. In 1631 John Milton wrote his pastoral odes to happiness and melancholy, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, but it wasn't until the 18th century that George Frideric Handel set the poems to music and, with the help of his librettist, added a section about reason and moderation, Il Moderato. It was even later that William Blake illustrated the words of Milton, his favorite poet. And it wasn't until 1988 that Mark Morris became a genius.

Under the generous auspices of Belgium's Theatre Royale de la Monnaie, the choreographer created an ambitious evening of dance-theater with a 30-piece orchestra, four vocal soloists, a 30-member chorus, a set of 21 scrims, and 25 dancers acting out each of Milton's words, Handel's melodies and Blake's illustrations. But Morris's work goes beyond pantomime, beyond the simple transference of an idea from one artistic medium to another. Morris's choreography reminds us of what dance can be: poetry and picture and, especially, music -- all at once.

Sure, most choreographers are inspired by music, but for Morris the two are inextricably tied. The dance maker, who grew up learning rhythmic folk dances, reads sheet music and plays the piano. To this day he works with score in hand and a live musician at the ready. "I love dance and music," he says from his home in New York. "That's why I choreograph, really." The result: Once you've seen Morris put a certain movement with a certain musical phrase, it's impossible to imagine it any other way. Handel's oratorio no longer feels complete unto itself.

The culmination of 400 years of artistic effort: LĂ Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.
The culmination of 400 years of artistic effort: LĂ Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

But it's not just his intense musicality that makes Morris one of the greatest choreographers of our time. It's also his paradoxical senses of irreverence and history. In LàAllegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, for instance, you'll see a nod to folk dancing, a Balanchine-style respect for balletic form and a dancer on all fours hiking his leg like a dog.

"I don't like most dance concerts I see," he told The South Bank Show in 1990. "And I don't like most of them because I think they're very boring." Sadly, not much has changed with modern dance in the last decade. Happily, Mark Morris takes great pains to have something new and interesting on stage at any given moment.

This requires a different sort of dancer from your average ballerina. They must be able to transform themselves from a peeing dog to a soaring bird to an actual human being, alternately joyous and despondent, and always accessible in their barefooted looseness. They must also be able to understand Morris's obscure and sometimes wordless descriptions of movement quality, and to put up with what has been described as a diva's temper. "Not everyone who's a good dancer can do my work," he says.

But once Morris and a Mark Morris dancer find each other, they rarely go their separate ways. The 18-member company even includes a few dancers from the original group of two decades ago. When asked whether they stay with him for his work or for his personality, Morris replies simply, but with appropriate diva style, "Yes."

The Mark Morris Dance Group performsLàAllegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato Thursday, Friday and Saturday, January 27, 28 and 29, at 8 p.m. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For more information, or to charge by phone, call the Society for the Performing Arts box office at (713)227-4SPA. Tickets are $15 to $47.

 
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