DANCE / Double Take: Morris dancers: Mark Morris's new piece, set to Handel, is for 24 dancers, a full orchestra, five soloists and a chorus. Judith Mackrell on the vision, Anthony Peattie on the sound of L'Allegro

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The overture, two movements from Handel's Concerto Grosso in G, is performed with the curtain down. The first number, 'Hence, loathed Melancholy', is sung while the audience gazes at an unlit empty set - perhaps the 'dark Cimmerian desert' to which L'Allegro, the happy or jolly man, would banish melancholy. Before we see any dancing, we are made to listen to Handel's setting of Milton's poetry (beautifully enunciated by the tenor Rufus Muller). The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, in excellent form, rose to the challenge of the spotlight. The conductor, Gareth Jones, went against prevailing fashion but his generous, unrushed tempos allowed Handel to sound meaty and left plenty of room for detail. Authentic or not, the orchestra proved convincing, and kept a forward momentum alive.

That beginning signals the respect choreographer Mark Morris has for the music. Later, when the smoky soprano Anne Dawson and the 'full-voic'd choir', Schola Cantorum of Edinburgh, sang of studious cloisters, 'and a pealing organ sounded', Morris had the dancers freeze: they, too, listened to the music. But Morris does more - his choreography illuminates the music. Watching the dance doesn't distract attention from the complex pleasures of listening to the music and the text, it adds to it: you hear more. Morris delights in literal, robustly nave illustrations that parallel Handel's own delight in sound effect - in 'Laughter holding both his sides', for example, or in the soaring lark. So we see the full progress of the hunt, somehow we see the 'Far-off Curfew sound . . . on a plat of rising ground'. Elsewhere, Morris glosses Handel's and Milton's tribute to drama, when the male dancers alternate butch, cod-Shakespeare thigh-slapping with simpering, paired skipping.

Handel's own architecture, his delight in canonic and fugal form, and in the partnership between vocal and instrumental soloist, cues Morris's patterns on the stage as the dancers echo one another's movements at one remove, at the distance of a phrase or of half the stage. Dance is made to enact the metaphysical implication of the verse and music. We experience synaesthetically how, 'Each action will derive new grace / From order, measure, time and place.' There is mystery here, as well as reason, intelligence and musicality. I don't know why the sight of two dancers spinning off into the wings as the stage darkens (exemplary lighting by James F Ingalls) should have been so moving, but it was. By using the extreme edges of the stage, Morris appears to suggest that the dance we see is a fragment of an infinitely greater, larger-scale dance which occupies the wingspace, the entire theatre, the Southside, all of Edinburgh.

Given the intimate relation of words, music and dance it was a pity so little of the text was audible. The soloists included Rosemary Joshua, Fiona Janes and Neal Davies, along with those already mentioned. They sang from the pit using music stands which further directed their voices downward. The Festival Theatre is in any case steeply raked, so it might have made sense to amplify them or position them elsewhere.

Mark Morris ends not, as Handel does, with a tribute to moderation, but with a radically compressed retelling of the Orpheus legend, a tribute to music itself. Here, it seems that Orpheus at first loses, then regains Eurydice - played by a man - only to reject him. Morris isn't one for moderation: he celebrates Mirth - not crude jollity, but a blissfully graceful realisation of the dancing potential of Handel's motor rhythms, his earthy bounce and his serene harmoniousness. It left the audience ecstatic.

Judith Mackrell on the vision, Anthony Peattie on the sound of L'Allegro

AP

When Mark Morris first premiered his breathtakingly ambitious L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the Monnaie in Brussels, one claque of critics spluttered crossly at its 'dumbfounding simplicity' and navety. This may sound an odd reaction to a piece which is set to Handel's scoring of two pastoral Milton poems and which employs 24 dancers, a full orchestra, five soloists and a chorus. Yet there are certain moments which do remind you fleetingly of a child romping carelessly in a grown-up world. For instance, when Milton speaks of a hunting scene, the dancers, like some riotous Music and Movement class, snuffle around the stage like hounds, 'peeing' on some other dancers bunched up to make a hedgerow. Where there's a reference to climbing hills, two women clamber gleefully up the backs of their fellows; where there's a mention of birds, the dancers brace their arms like wings; where there are flowers, their fingers frame their faces like petals.

Also, Morris's dance language looks very straightforward. It draws heavily on ordinary runs, skips and jumps and it invites us to laugh out loud, to tap our feet and luxuriate in its energy. Yet this apparent simplicity is a facet of Morris's astonishingly direct approach to Milton and Handel. It actually takes a special kind of genius to make dance that so blithely accords with Handel's springing measures. And it takes a rare sensibility to find images that so vividly evoke Milton's text without looking stupid or self-conscious.

During the 30 or so dances which skim in and out of Milton's meditations on pleasure and solitude, Morris makes us believe in a world where contemplation lives happily alongside bucolic jollity, where gods, men and animals coexist; where the city and the country do not quarrel. It is an unapologetically Utopian view, but also a very modern one. Its jokes can be rude, its vision of love can be gay and straight. One of its most touching moments comes when a circle of men and women lie in a frankly sexual embrace, then the women tenderly pick up the men and cradle them in their arms.

Of course, too, these moments of apparent simplicity are only the starting point for choreography that expands, over two hours, with masterly artfulness. Individual phrases are repeated, inverted, mirrored or performed in canon, so that they build into an intricate human clockwork. The dancers form circles, lines, pyramids, squares - a gorgeous profusion of patterns. Certain moves become motifs which gather resonance every time we see them, like one hauntingly beautiful leap where the dancer's arm is curved like a sickle moon, an intimation of night. And throughout the piece Morris keeps the energy building with a steady and inventive force.

We watch pale, exquisite images of melancholy alternate with rowdy hedonism; we see pastoral scenes alternate with near abstract dance geometry. As all dance and all humanity crowd on to the stage, it seems that the piece can't contain any more. To the final triumphant chorus, 'Mirth with thee I mean to live', Morris lets everything explode with wave after wave of running and leaping dancers breasting the stage. Then, on Handel's closing chords, he gathers them together into a last circle - the oldest and most universal dance figure in the world.

I'm not generally convinced that living works should be called masterpieces. But L'Allegro ranks as one, not just because of its staggering technical assurance, but because it creates a world so humane, so funny, so ravishing and so joyous that no sane person could resist it.

Mark Morris Company plans a nationwide tour early next year

JM

(Photograph omitted)

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