Oh, joy: an evening of massage for the spirit. The Mark Morris Dance Group collides with ENO – and both win. Handel’s oratorio, written in 1740, is based on the twin poems of John Milton – L’Allegro and Il Penseroso – which give voice to ‘cheerful’ and ‘pensive’ states of mind. Handel adds a middle way (Il Moderato) and alternates arias for three voices, to exquisite effect.
In fact there are four voices at ENO – two sopranos (Susan Gritton and Linda Richardson), a tenor (Timothy Robinson) and a baritone (Neal Davies). They all sang beautifully, as far as I can remember: the reason I can’t give you more detail is that what was happening on stage was so compelling that the voices became part of the whole experience – essential but not dominant.
Mark Morris’ choreography is joyful, exciting, at times moving and at times very, very funny; above all it is so uplifting that a packed house would happily have watched all night. His troupe of 29 dancers were breathtaking, from their very first entry darting across the stage in two streams at right angles, at such speed that an accident looked inevitable.
In wonderfully simple costumes by Christine Van Loon (earth, leaf and berry colours in the first half, brightening to jewel tones in the second) the dancers mixed and matched during thirty short pieces, each illustrating a passage of Milton’s poetry and bringing to life a panoply of ‘gods and goddesses, shepherds and artists, men and beasts’. At times the choreography is abstract, at times literal: especially in a hunting scene in which the dancers play trees, bushes, huntsman and their dogs – the latter doing what comes naturally to dogs encountering trees.
Another passage gives us an exquisite lark, followed by a whole flock of birds – the image of them wheeling and turning, with those uncanny and unpredictable breaks in formation at which we marvel in nature, will stay with me for a long while.
Many of the steps are simple, but in case we were in danger of underestimating the technical proficiency of the dancers one passage in particular brings us up short. A pair begins a fiendishly complicated, finely controlled and extremely graceful pas de deux, almost in slow motion. Some of the movements look physically impossible. Just as they are finishing they are joined by a second pair, who begin the same routine. In the meantime the first pair is performing it in reverse order… and a third pair enters to pick up the steps in the balletic equivalent of a musical round. What a perfect accompaniment to the delicate, harmonious complexity of Handel.