The City of Brussels, with its gilded Grand Place built on a stodgy metaphorical foundation of bullion, is perhaps the most conservative of European world capitals, known for rolling up its streets, and tucking in its bankers and tourists by 9 p.m. every night. As such, it’s about the most unlikely city imaginable to host the likes of Mark Morris! Yet, in 1988, it lavished its riches on him and his company, unrolling red carpet hospitality at its Théâtre de la Monnaie for the creation and debut of “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” considered by many to be Morris’ finest work.
An evening-long work, L’Allegro extrudes the deepest and most broad-ranging whimsy of its choreographer. It’s a meditation that folds high-minded music, dance in a habitat all its own, and naturalist design, into a lushly sensual ménage à trois. Ironically, this most sophisticated piece in the Morris oeuvre was created when he was only 32. That it took shape while the company was swaddled in lucre could make the definitive case against the puritanical argument that artists must suffer in order to create.
While the choreography looks rooted in candor and simplicity, the printed program devotes page upon page to the text of a “Pastoral Ode after poems by John Milton,” and the dance work is accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Sopranos Sherezade Panthaki and Yulia Van Doren, tenor Thomas Cooley, and baritone Douglas Williams, create a tonal spectrum that stands on its own. Paradise lost, has this night been found.
The overture opens with the string section of the orchestra, and as the heavier instruments come in, the dancers range modernized baroque steps with arms, repetitions that open and close as if echoing the wind instruments’ keys. A trio sends arms up, then lowers the upper body on the music’s descant. Men lift women to meet the high notes during the soprano interludes. Arms dip, as if into water, inviting torsos to follow gently to the floor. Bounding releases mark time. Male dancers shape themselves into athletic poses, in blowsy blouson shirts designed by Christine Van Loon.
The set design elements by Adrianne Lobel (also a consummate illustrator of children’s books), perfectly frame the evening’s triptych. Squares in muted colors, outlined in black are interpolated to create depth and perspective, with a similar décor repeated in scrims that descend, sometimes with a grey screen to contrast a black and white TV aspect with the costumes’ root-vegetable colors—yellow, purple, green, wheat, and a starchy blue—framed in complementary hues.
A joyful couple—two women—sweep the floor with their arms, ushering in a corps of men. There are no static shapes, as steps massage, lift, and spiral their way through the scrims so that some dancers are noir-ish, with their counterparts in living color. Among the dancers whose work is most memorable are: Lauren Grant, Sam Black, Lesley Garrison, Michelle Yard, Maile Okmura, Brandon Randolph, and Laurel Lynch.
Lobel makes the colors disappear when she transforms the stage into something akin to a sound studio, all in textured blacks and greys, as if to separate sound from movement, and create sacred spaces for both. The motion here is softer, in keeping with the sheltering space.
Men dance in Grecian Urn-like poses, arms open and raised à la Isadora Duncan. A slow-moving cluster of them carries two women lifted above overhead, all the time turning while crossing from stage left to right at a funereal pace.
A comic scene poses dancers as trees, arms sorted into scraggly branches. Others crawl on all fours through the improvised Prospect Park as prospecting dogs, and yet others mime humans tugging on leashes gone wild. Was there a cult of the dog in 1988? If not, how prophetically funny! Maybe Mark Morris is the social visionary who has been wrongly dubbed “enfant terrible.”
To trumpets and horns, ritual occasional movement takes over, a triumph of style soon to be displaced by situational poses that let the air out of previous comic puffery. This is supported by Morris’ hallmark quick, scant triplets offset by grander steps on demi-pointe that then break out into nearly folkloric dos y dos, with dancers building canopies to showcase each other. Women carry men; men carry women — all of it showing Brussels, and the world beyond its banks, that humans living large has more to do with freeing the imagination than stocking up on bullion.