Review: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Mark Morris Dance Group and Luminato)

Luminato 2013 LAllegro Mark Morris Dance Group 15 - Photo by Elaine Mayson

Luminato presents the Toronto premiere of Mark Morris’ dance show L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

Mark Morris is an acclaimed contemporary American choreographer known for his eclectic style, ingenuity and wit. Morris created L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in 1988 and his company, Mark Morris Dance Group, has performed it regularly ever since.

L’Allegro is widely revered and considered the company’s magnum opus. However, it has never been performed in Toronto until now. Luminato is presenting the Canadian premiere for the work’s 25th anniversary.

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is a multidisciplinary work; Morris choreographed the full-length piece around a baroque oratorio by Handel who in turn composed his oratorio around a set of pastoral odes by poet John Milton.

It’s a grandiose production performed by a full chamber orchestra and choir; Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir in this case, four vocal soloists; sopranos Karina Gauvin and Shannon Mercer, tenor Thomas Cooley, and baritone Douglas Williams; as well as Morris’ own company of two dozen dancers.

The production looks, sounds and feels big, bold and dynamic and easily fills the large stage of the Sony Centre.

What stood out to me about the production was the interesting way it blends baroque music with modern dance. The movement vocabulary Morris created for the piece seems to be based in folk dance; groups of dancers often perform in lines or dance in circles.

While it’s not a narrative piece and most of the dance is abstract, sometimes scenes described in the text are literally acted out on stage. I found it amusing how, at different times, the dancers embody birds flitting around trees, hounds giving chase and even create a fireplace with their bodies.

Morris’ choreography has a high degree of musicality and the dance follows the music very closely; flourishes in the Handel’s score are echoed in the movement often to whimsical effect. There are several times when a dancer fluttering his arms or legs along to the music will elicit chuckles from the audience.

I think that’s what I liked best about this piece; its playful sense of fun and whimsy. It’s a serious dance piece that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, the most crowd-pleasing vignette of the evening is a cheeky “slap fight” choreography that’s full-fledge slapstick comedy.

The pieces presented by Luminato are often unapologetically arty but the festival is making an effort to make them more accessible. I highly recommend attending the pre-show talks offered before many Luminato performances (including L’Allegro) as they often provide enough of the background and contextual information that will give you a way to access the piece.

I think Luminato strikes the perfect balance with L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. It’s high-brow art that’s also fun and it’s accessible without being pandering. Dance fans will want to see it because it is a significant work of the 20th century but even those who are new to dance will find something about the piece to enjoy.

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Photo by Ken Friedman