DANCE / How to find motion in poetry

Click to follow
A FEW years ago, during the filming of rehearsals for his L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Mark Morris surmised that, 'pretty early in history maybe the first thing people did, after they stopped killing people with rocks, was hold hands and dance'. This idea - of dance as social activity - informs much of Morris's oeuvre. But in L'Allegro, a glorious visualisation of Milton's allegorical poems set to Handel's cantata of 1740, he goes further. The piece, performed by Mark Morris Dance Group at the Festival Theatre, presents us with a microcosm of society at work, rest and play. In the same way that Milton's text distinguishes between (but doesn't judge) the man of mirth and his melancholic counterpart, Morris embraces both dark and light aspects of the human temperament. And his designers, Adrianne Lobel (set), Christine Van Loon (costume) and James F Ingalls (lighting), convey every possible dawn-to-dusk mood through a series of coloured scrims, gauzes and washes.

Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens, organised L'Allegro and Il Penseroso as a collage of alternating passages, adding his own Il Moderato to balance the excesses of Milton's chosen humours. However, Morris's rearrangement of Jennens's text discards large chunks of Il Moderato. And although Handel's vigorous music was probably the initial trigger for the piece, Morris is completely at ease with the poetic material, allowing both 'loathed Melancholy' and 'heart-easing Mirth' full expression.

The group's 12 male and 12 female dancers were accompanied from the pit by five solo singers and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra zippily conducted by Gareth Jones. Episodes of frolicking brightness - the 'Haste thee nymphs' male trio led by Kraig Patterson, whose springy leaps and faun-like arms hint at a primitive animal energy and innocence - depict the L'Allegro character and punctuate the more brooding dances of Il Penseroso. While Morris makes vivid the essential humanity of each side - melancholy in particular - he also finds images of noble suffering and concealed desolation which go far beyond our hurried contemporary idea of tragedy. As the first part of the work draws to a close with the 'sunshine holyday' wedding bells chorus from L'Allegro, we see six stridently joyful couples melt into the enigmatic postures of Il Penseroso, and the circle - marriage, death, birth, mobilised through phrases of ravishingly simple and economical movement - is then complete.

Morris's skill in handling elemental dance forms is so closely bound to his musicality that he can make even the most brazen and silly act of imitation convincing. In its mildest exposition we have scenes peopled with milkmaids, shepherds and mowers, or filled with dancers swooping like flocks of birds. But the choreographer's most brilliant conceit is the 'hound and horn' hunt which features dancers in both character and scenery roles, pretending to be trees, dogs and hedgerows. Throughout, Morris incorporates line and circle dances to suggest architectural order, as well as the ritual activity of ancient civilisations. At the end, the dancers rush forward, forming a swirl of concentric circles. And as the groups run in opposite directions, we see mirth and melancholy shifting into perfect accord. Morris has created something almost too perfect to be true.