Review: Mark Morris Dance Group at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

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The essence of spring filtered into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last week, as Mark Morris Dance Group arrived for a joint performance of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato with the LA Opera Orchestra and Chorus and four solo singers. Here’s what the dance troupe evoked, in keeping with the seasonal motif: lightness (graceful turns in bare feet), brightness (supple two-toned dresses in gorgeous greens, blues, and yellows), and the birds and the bees (enough said). Here’s what the group did not convey: lightness (where was the joy in the dancers’ faces?), brightness (many moves fell flat, out of sync with the powerful, operatic singing), and the birds and the bees (only fleeting moments of true connection).

The springtime theme, of course, speaks to the idea of life—of celebrating life. Mark Morris is celebrating its 30th anniversary, but this 1988 piece disappointed even as it succeeded. It’s a complicated performance, staged to the music of George Frideric Handel, with spare sets inspired by the watercolors of William Blake, and sung in English to the poetry of John Milton. The final chorus—“These delights if thou canst give, / Mirth, with thee we mean to live”—concludes the two-part pastoral ode that touches on notions of happiness (extroversion), contemplation (introversion), and moderation (the middle ground between the two).

Talent was not in short supply: the 24 dancers, technically; the singers, artistically. The latter, including sopranos Hei-Kyung Hong and Sarah Coburn, tenor Barry Banks, and bass-baritone John Relyea, however, were down in the orchestra pit for the duration of the program, cut off from full view. And it was difficult to understand their words. There seemed to be a disconnect, in fact, between what was happening in the pit and what we were viewing onstage. Only Mark Morris soloist Julie Worden seemed to portray the spirit of the song, her long blond hair swaying to the sound, her body controlled but fluid.

The use of screens was intriguing (groups of dancers mimicking each other’s moves from opposite sides). The bit of humor was entertaining (members of the cast transforming into trees and shrubs, plus hound dogs that didn’t meet a tree or shrub they didn’t like). And the audience roared with delight at the end.

For those who left confused, like the couple next to me, perhaps they would have benefited from introductory remarks that would have set up the narrative, much like the film that preceded Alvin Ailey’s recent staging of Revelations. Then again, for a program this world-renowned and in its 23rd year, it’s doing something right.

Photograph by Ken Friedman