The Mark Morris Company Trips the Light Fantastic

Come, and trip it as you go

On the light fantastic toe

THE quaint lines of this old English verse take on some very modern and energetic impulses when set to music and danced by the Mark Morris Dance Group. Add 27 performers in fluttering silk costumes, 25 singers, and a 28-piece orchestra, and the result is as fanciful and extravagant as a May Day celebration in Sherwood Forest.

Such pageantry enveloped the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston last week, as Morris's company performed to choral music by George Frideric Handel. Because of the production's size and cost, this was only the third city it had been presented, after Brussels and New York. (A separate program, which concludes tomorrow night at the Emerson Majestic Theatre, includes three works from the Morris canon plus a world premiere.)

The Handel piece is titled ``L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,'' which simply means ``the joyful man, pensive man, and moderate man,'' and is adapted from a pair of poems by 17th-century writer and moral philosopher John Milton.

For audiences today, the idea of a contemporary choreographer like Mark Morris building dances for, or even listening to, music of the 17th and 18th centuries is bizarre. Music of that era belonged in the courts of royalty or was commissioned by politicians and nobles with massive egos. The music that resulted, with its elaborate swirls and doodads to ornament most musical phrases, became known as Baroque.

Modern dance, with its abrupt angles and fierce rejection of classical ballet's symmetry, would seem an unlikely vehicle for a delicate and ruffled Baroque choral piece. But Morris doesn't discriminate between classical and popular music. His programs feature dances set to everything from Verdi opera to country-and-western tunes. Morris is himself a rather baroque character, with an overabundance of unruly hair and a flair for the theatrical.

The ``L'Allegro'' concert, a first-time collaboration between presenter Dance Umbrella and the Wang Center, clinches Morris's position as the top American choreographer working today. The dance builds steadily, gathering force from the unified efforts of his company, and bursts the confines of the stage to propel the audience into a state of buoyancy and joy. ``L'Allegro'' is the most accessible of all Morris's work: The choreography is inventive and entrancing, and there are no mysteries or metaphors to unravel. Haste thee, nymph, and bring

with thee Jest, and youthful Jollity... And Laughter, holding both

his sides.

The humor and delight of Handel's music, which is rooted in Milton's praises of the English countryside, is further enhanced by the singers. With the help of soloists Jeanne Ommerle, Jayne West, Frank Kelley, and James Maddalena, and the Emmanuel Music Chorus, the words and images come clearly into focus. In one segment, the singers roll out the sounds, ``ah ah ah HA,'' and the dancers pantomime that laughter with pin-point precision. Handel's Baroque embellishments are done by means of crisp hand movements by the dancers.

In the more reflective and pensive sections, the performers move with stately composure, their bodies taut like drawn bows, or their mouths open in attitudes of supplication.

One of Morris's greatest gifts is the ability to enhance the illusion of depth: Dancers upstage echo the movements of dancers downstage, moving parallel to one another but separated, as living beings are, from nymphs and sprites by a gauzy veil of secrecy (provided by a semitransparent backdrop). These delights if thou

canst give, Mirth, with thee I mean to live.

The rousing closing, with dancers moving swiftly to the front of the stage with their arms open wide, carries a strong message of life-affirmation in an age of uncertainty. The performers release their joy into the audience like balloons at a carnival, with enough delight to send concertgoers home in ecstasy.

WHAT possible encore could there be? The second program is more characteristically Mark Morris, with its goofy takeoff on ``Aida'' and sassy choreography, but it's hard not feel let-down after the riches of Handel.

The world-premiere ``Lucky Charms'' falls short of his best work. It features a dozen performers in sequined costumes, dancing a combination of ``Chorus Line'' Vegas-style numbers with sweet Miss America smiles. It wasn't campy enough to be funny, or serious enough to be thoughtful. Nonetheless, kudos go to Dance Umbrella, which commissioned the piece, for their ongoing support of Morris's ever-evolving work.

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