Morris dance rings all the right bells

L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

Mark Morris Dance Group

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

MARK Morris's dance masterpiece arrived in Birmingham for the first time carrying before it like a Royal standard 22 years of accolades, superlatives and adulation.

Up to its appearance at the London Coliseum earlier this month it had been ten years since it had been seen in Britain yet was still spoken of in bated breath and it is a magnificent piece of dance.

I hesitate to say modern when Handel's music dates back to 1740 and John Milton's poems are more than a century earlier but this is at times stunning contemporary dance with precision and timing especially, when 24 dancers are on stage at once, which is a joy to watch.

Morris uses his dancers to paint pictures and tell stories, show emotions and set scenes in a way that sets it apart from other modern dance classics. It might not have the drama or excitement - Handel and Milton don't do excitement - but it has a depth and elegance that will be a challenge to surpass.

A moment in the opening sequence when all the dancers run at full speed in a loop on opposite diagonals crossing in the centre of the stage without colliding or deviating in direction or pace was breathtaking. The hours of practice and bruises for just that short section can only be imagined.

There are other fine moments such as when the company flutter like a flock of starlings around the stage in a poem we assume was about birds - more of that later - and there is humour in there such as the tongue in cheek slapping dance among the men or the hunting scene where two girls are the prey hiding among the trees and shrubs formed by rest of the company chased by a male dancers as a pack of dogs - who, of course, do what dogs tend to do when they find a tree.

RAPTUROUS APPLAUSE

The choreography is stunning using the full Hippodrome stage and Mark Morris fully deserved the rapturous applause when he appeared at the end. He manages to isolate one or two dancers in the crowd to express a feeling, or co-ordinate several groups . A common theme was to use groups, or lines of dancers all doing the same thing but slightly out of sync - rather like a very graceful, very elegant dancing Mexican wave.

There was one point where a dance downstage was being mirrored  by the same dance at the very rear of the stage but several seconds behind yet slowly the dance at the rear caught up until it ended with both dances in perfect time. That sort of thing takes imagination in choreography and skill in execution.

Morris creates not just dances but tableaux and shapes with dances becoming a small part of a larger movement which can spread across the stage. He also challenges convention with his women at one point lifting his men, or repeating an early dance when a group of men hold a female dancer in triumph towards the end with a group of women lifting a man.

Wherever you look there is something going on, something to make you wonder. The Mark Morris dance group itself is a revelation with dancers in all shapes and sizes along with beards and pony tails. It gives the dancers an air of everyman, of being a part of all humanity rather than just a dancer - and an exceptional one at that. 

It all flowed seamlessly and seemed effortless - of course we know it was not. Blood is sweated to reach within touching distance of perfection.

The sets are simple and effective with gause screens, washes of changing colour and  unobtrusive lightingsetting the mood while the equally simple costumes in  pastel shades help the dancers in creating the images and expressing the emotions of the poems and music.

FAULTLESS ORCHESTRA

And for the music there was English National Opera orchestra who were faultless under conductor Jane Glover with a clarity and brightness that enhanced Handel's music and one could not fault the New London Chamber Choir or the soloists sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tenor Mark Padmore and bass baritone  Andrew Foster-Williams.

It was all First Division stuff and without the dance it would still have been an enjoyable performance but sadly this was also the Achilles heel of the piece. 

Each of the 32 dances to an extent depends upon the poem to both set the scene and let the audience know what is going on - let us be honest Milton's poems are not exactly top of most people's reading lists and the Handel piece is rarely performed.

But making out the words is an impossible task which is no real fault of the singers - for a start they are down in the pit which hardly helps their cause and then the poems as songs to Handel's music and the poems to be read and understood are two different beasts.

Thus the audience is left marvelling at the dance  and how it flows wonderfully with the music but as both the music and the dance depend upon the poems for inspiration there is an element lacking

The poems are printed in the programme but that is really for reference later. It might sound sacrilege for something sung in English but surtitles might just be worth considering.

Roger Clarke

VIDEO

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