Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Joy and Pain

May 06, 2011

Mark Morris Group in Handel's L'Allegro.... Photo: Robert Millard 2011

It’s an 80s dance flashback weekend in Los Angeles where two different institutions are presenting seminal works of the later 20th Century for reconsideration. UCLA Live will present the touring revival of Lucinda Child’s 1979 Dance, a collaboration with Phillip Glass and artist Sol LeWitt, starting on Saturday. (Yes, I know this is technically one year before the 80s, but it's close enough in spirit to count, so get over it.) But before that gets underway, Dance at the Music Center and Los Angeles Opera hosted the opening of another touring work from 1988 on Thursday, Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato set to the music of Handel’s well known oratorio. The evening long work has been seen all over the world, and in Southern California on a few prior occasions, so its appearance here is not unique. However, the show is remarkable both for how well it still works visually, and for how apparent its influence has become. Watching L’Allegro over two decades after its premiere, it seems overly familiar until you realize that everything in it that was so radically different at the time has now become commonplace for any number of contemporary choreographers and dance companies. The movement has a clarity and geometry that makes it approachable while not representing a literal interpretation of the text.

The various sections of the work, divided into two acts, reflect the wide variety of human emotional experience Handel attempted to capture in this expanded setting of poems from John Milton. There is whimsy and heartbreak and the dancers leap and fly about in mirror image groups at times evoking any number of characters and situations from hieroglyphics to a couple out for a walk with their dogs in the park. The work is immense with a large cast of dancers and one fascinating set of images after the next. The men and women of the ensemble appear in pastel garb amidst a minimal but colorful empty box of a set that is supposed to recall paintings by William Blake, but just as easily brings to mind Mark Rothko. It can be deliriously silly and deadly serious at turns. Best of all, Morris’ preference for live music has led this performance to be joined by the Los Angeles Opera orchestra under Grant Gershon. They sounded strong in a contemporary fashion for Baroque music and were joined by four excellent soloists: Barry Banks, Sarah Coburn, Hei-Kyung Hong, and John Relyea. All were spot on, but I must admit being particularly taken with Hong’s bright and easy soprano. She may not be at the top of the big international opera star heap, but she certainly has the voice for it. Banks and Relyea both had ample energy and easily projected from the pit without clashing with any of the action on stage. There is no projection of the text, however, which is a good thing for the visual aesthetic overall, but may leave the viewer wanting a little bit if you're not familiar with some of the content in advance.

It is fair to say that Morris’ L’Allegro does have edges that make it seem like it’s from another time. The pastel costumes when seen alongside Sarah Coburn’s single-shouldered white draped dress distinctly recalled Xanadu. And though it can be decidedly cheeky with its sly gay subtexts, it can feel surprisingly genteel in its approach at other times. But there is ample beauty here, and the performance is a keen reminder of Morris' legacy on the dance world. It's a welcome return from Morris' company, and he was met with a very enthusiastic reception at the final curtain. The show repeats through Sunday, May 9, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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