Why is Mona Lisa smiling? Because she likes the music

A new production takes the paintings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and turns them into life using dance and 16th-century music. By Richard D North
WILLIAM Kemp is so beautiful you would not really need an excuse to go and watch him dance, but his performance tonight in the Covent Garden Festival will be something more than a display of lithe, athletic and rhythmic muscularity. It will also be a display of musculature for its own sake - and then something more than that, too.

On the table in Kemp's rehearsal studio lies a copy of Eadweard Muybridge's book of photographs of freeze-framed moving bodies - a clue to the observational mission in which the dancer is engaged. Under Netia Davan Wetton's direction, he aims to animate not just what we see in Leonardo da Vinci's paintings and drawings, but something of the spirit behind them.

The project is titled Music for the Mona Lisa. The music is early 16th century, mostly Italian and French, and is played by Corncordia, the early music group directed by Mark Levy.

The inspiration for the project was provided by Vasari's Lives of the Artists (published in 1550), in which Levy read that da Vinci created the Mona Lisa while listening to music. The artist loved, understood and played music. It satisfied his mission to see the mathematics underlying the arts. And it was always accepted that music played most directly on the emotions. Hence the probable interest in playing both artist and sitter some upbeat tunes from the new, emotionally free music available at the start of the 16th century.

One of the da Vinci quotations in the readings which accompany Kemp's dancing to Concordia's music captures this: "A good painter must paint two things above all others: the person and the intent of that person's soul." This required a painter to capture mood and expression, and that required a "snapshot" approach. Hence the excitement surrounding the Mona Lisa: the smile was quite new to art, and the artist's devotion to a fleeting moment demonstrates high technical achievement.

This was frozen movement as surely as a Muybridge, or one of Kemp's sudden stillnesses, threatening to topple over, at the end of a vigorous jump or two. Suddenly, he is a spear-thrower, arrested, as though ready for dissection by da Vinci's scalpel or pencil.

In a second Concordia performance of early 6th-century music, Levy and his collaborator will concentrate on the passion for melancholy. Concordia will play viol music as a background to Crye, a very strong but accessible poem commissioned from and read by Glyn Maxwell, about the grief of the English Civil War.

Levy says: "There is a great deal of miserable music for viol. It can make very fugitive, sombre music. It was often used at funerals and solemn occasions. In fact, much of the music for Crye is Elizabethan and early Jacobean, rather earlier than the Civil War."

`Music for the Mona Lisa', BOC Covent Garden Festival of Opera and Music Theatre, Cochrane Theatre, London WC2, 7.30pm, 26 May (0171 420 0171). `Crye', Old Operating Theatre, London SE1, 7.30pm, 9 June (0171 955 4791). CDs are available on Metronome (01326 377738).