Mark Morris’ dance work: ‘Most fantabulous — ever’

The Mark Morris Dance Group performs “L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” last year in Madrid. 

A couplet from the libretto of “L’Allegro” reads: “Come, and trip it as you go/On the light fantastic toe.”

And truly fantastic it was.

Two dozen barefooted members of the Mark Morris Dance Group — along with longtime Morris collaborators, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale — just gave the most fantabulous modern dance performance I’ve seen.


The guy next to me, who’d thrice attended Morris’ signature creation set to the George Frideric Handel oratorio “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” gushed even more.

“This piece,” he declared, “is one of the great testaments of modern civilization.”

I’m an old Morris buff, dating to first catching “The Hard Nut,” the choreographer’s charming, cartoonish ballet departure from the Tchaikovsky chestnut, “The Nutcracker,” at Cal Performances.

“L’Allegro” is a pastoral ode to joy and dreaminess, to darkness and light.

During the 105-minute, sold-out Zellerbach Hall matinee I attended, Morris in 30 sequences layered solos, duos, trios and meandering lines and circles of six, 12 and 24 dancers.

Including comic interludes.

Such as a strutting lark with bobbing head, and a hunting sequence featuring pointing pooches. Plus a gay sequence spotlighting the 12 males high-kicking like Rockettes, wrestling, running a submissive-dominance gauntlet and air-smooching.

All told, there was more stylized movement than formal dance, but exciting anyway.

The orchestra’s tune-up lasted longer than usual, because its 34 musicians were tweaking authentic violins, violas, cellos, oboes, a double bass, flute, bassoon, horn and trumpet made in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And carefully crafted copies.

Baroque instruments were utilized because they could replicate the sounds as written — rather than take a lazier, less costly approach of using modern devices that only approximate old tonal qualities.

The oratorio’s libretto is based on two 17th century John Milton poems (“rearranged” decades later by Charles Jennens, a Handel buddy who also helped pen the libretti for the composer’s “Messiah”).

Although its words can sometimes be difficult to fathom, Morris’ ballet is accessible for even casual music-lovers.

Like me.

That, of course, befits his reputation as being innovative and irreverent, satirical and funny, shocking and raw — with brilliant musicality stretching from country-and-western melodies to Bach.

“L'Allegro,” meanwhile, pitted elements of reality (birds, dogs, hills) against flashes of philosophical fantasy and pure form.

All of which was aided by the inventive set design of Adrianne Lobel, with its ever-moving, ever-changing panels and scrims of varying colors.

Like a geometric modern painting.

Or a camera lens that kept opening and shutting.

Consider, too, the exquisite costumes by Christie Van Loon.

Before intermission, hues highlighted subtle shades of bronze, aqua, charcoal gray and a fleshy tone of orange.

Many brighter colors popped up in the second half.

Women were cloaked in a soft fabric that moved freely with them. Underskirts and waistbands in shades worn by other dancers blended neatly.

The men's tops were also loose, contrasting with tight bottoms.

Together, the outfits frequently created a kaleidoscopic effect as dramatic as Joseph’s fabled coat of many colors.

Nicholas McGegan was the orchestra’s flawless music director in the company’s fifth go-‘round at Cal Performances since 1988 (shortly after “L’Allegro” premiered in Belgium).

Bruce Lamott was his counterpart with the stirring 24-person chorale.

Regarding the vocals, it took a few bars to realize the mellifluous solo voices of sopranos Sherezade Penthaki and Yulia Van Doren, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Douglas Williams would preclude my discerning many words.

So I relaxed and enjoyed their vocal instruments.

The 59-year-old eclectic, versatile, Seattle-born Morris’ troupe has long been known for various heights, weights, shapes (including chunky) and skin colors.

Still true.

Though he no longer performs in public, the choreographer has danced with great seriousness — as well as in underpants with a bag over his head.

Morris, who’s created 150 works for his group (founded in 1980), is a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow.

Also on his resume are eight works created for the San Francisco Ballet; having established the White Oak Dance Project touring company with Mikhail Baryshnikov; having pieces commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet; and having worked in opera for two decades with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and Royal Opera House.

His dance troupe will return to Cal Performances in September with the world premiere of his full-length piece with roots in 7th-century Persian opera, “Layla and Majnun.”

Its music mixes sorrow and ecstasy.

I hope to score a ticket.

Upcoming Cal Performances dance dates will include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, March 29-April 3. Information: or (510) 642-9988.

Contact Woody Weingarten at

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