Mark Morris Dance Group: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato @ Coliseum, London

This stunning piece combines dance and music to dramatic effect.

The musical landscape is that of Handels pastoral ode set to the poetry of John Milton.

Conducted by Jane Glover, formerly of Glyndebourne and of the London Mozart Players, the resident orchestra are joined by a chorus and four leading soloist, all of whom excel.
Amongst them is the distinctive voice of the well-kinown tenor, Mark Padmore. On stage is a 24-strong company of dancers, who perform in front of abstract sets design inspired by William Blakes later watercolours illustrating these Milton poems. The costumes are Grecian in style, remniscent of Isadora Duncan (to whom there are also some nods in the fluid but classical dancing), echoing the classical references of the poetry which forms the libretto.

This is in fact a ‘multi-media collaboration’, but it is not in any sense an edgy work which comes across as ‘pushing boundaries’. There are no rough edges in sight, everything is very polished and very smooth. It is a work which is beautiful rather than adventurous, but it is very exquisite; with the highest standards of performance, choreography and music. Although not narrative in the way that an opera is, this work is at home in the opera house.

It is cheerful and upbeat throughout, with a wit also seen in some of the ENO productions of Handel’s operas – for example towards the end of the first half there is a sequence set in a pleasure garden, where some dancers strike a pose to be the bushes in the gardens whilst others are dogs pulling sleds … and the dogs do what dogs tend to do when bushes present themselves. Yet the humour is gentle, a cheerful wit that retains poise and dignity. Later in the work, an all-male stage ‘box’ with each other in a stylised portrayal of working out in a gym, in a scene which the near-capacity audience particularly enjoyed and appreciated.

It is refreshing to see a company as physically, as well as artistically, diverse as the multiracial Mark Morris Dance Group. With stockier dancers performing looser moves than those found in traditional ballet, Mark Morris democratises dance giving the impression that is accessible to everyone and possible for anyone to join in. Opinion is divided as to whether this is a weakness or a strength. Some purists “have made a big fuss over the fact that we look like people” says Morris, “which I think is both true and insane. We are people”.

The work has the quality found in some of Handel’s music and most especially the Hallelujah chorus to be joyful and uplifting. It reminds you that you are people, too.

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is at the London Coliseum until 17th April, as part of their Spring Dance season. It then transfers to Birmingham’s International Dance Festival, from 24 – 28 April 2010

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