What joys I feel
What charms I see.
—“Acis and Galatea”
The auditorium lights dim halfway. The band strikes up (the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, under Nicholas McGegan). Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” zings into the house, filled with Mostly Mozart Festival and Mark Morris regulars. The urge to boogie in your seat is fierce. Then, action! The stage fills with dancing. And right away, when the music is sweeping you up in an unconfined surge of joy, the choreographer sends out a nod to his previous great Handel work, and to those who love it: “L’Allegro, Il Penserso, ed Il Moderato,” which you can hear underneath the overture (an echo of “Then Let Hymen Oft Appear,” a tenor aria from the second act). We’re in familiar and beloved territory.
In the Morris version, “L’Allegro” ends with a surge of dancing. Wave after wave of dancers—duets, trios, quartets—run in from upstage and frolic towards us, only to exit and return again. All of the movement save the fast exits is from upstage to down. Here, in “Acis and Galatea,” Morris begins with similar bubbling waves of dancers, but in diagonals traversing every way but towards us. Then he gives us our “L’Allegro” moment: a quartet joyously advances and then drops to the floor and rolls sideways, with one dancer still neatly upright and sidestepping over the others. The audience laughs—as they will throughout the dance—which has some choice visual pranks, often engaged with the libretto’s text or subtext. Here, there’s a joke and an in-joke.
But this is not “L’Allegro,” and it isn’t Handel. It is not a dance. It is a two-act opera, and a Mozart rearrangement of the original Handel. Besides its clear connection to the Mostly Mozart Festival, this version of the music is fuller yet lighter, racier, less stately, and more dance-y. This score moves us forward in the Morris canon.
The choreographic now—wherever we are in Morris’s post-post modernity—is a delicious fusion. Here it is in service of the pastoral, the Arcadian genre that also appealed so strongly to Tom Stoppard. You can observe the story-theater magic of “L’Allegro” travel towards and through the pure musical danciness of the “Mozart Dances” and on though the communal friezes of the Morris “Socrates” (which is to the Satie of the same name). You can see the broad, hieratic, Poussin-meets-Puvis-de-Chavannes stagescapes of the latter allied with the delicious rushiness of the former, but also the precise placement and use of the feet which perhaps comes from working with ballet companies. Yet still, there is the plainspoken Isadora-ness with which the choreographer first stepped out, allied with an increase in elegance.
Since it is a love story, “Acis and Galatea” is rich in duets, one more luscious than the next. Romantic and painterly, it’s full of soft lyrical jumps and beautiful soaring lifts, everyone closely braided into the musical line. The narrative transpires like this: Galatea (a semi-divinity known as a nymph) is in love with a shepherd named Acis, but a licentious giant named Polyphemus kills him in a jealous rage.
So, girl loves boy. Girl loses boy. Then, we experience one of those conversion myth moments where a person becomes immortal by assuming—or having bestowed upon him or her—a sylvan identity: a tree, a brook, or, in this case, a stream.
Morris uses the lyrics (a patchwork by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes) in various ways, including a bit of story theater, and some recurring symbolic gestures. Here, too, there are nods to “L’Allegro,” or perhaps just a re-assignment of his own vocabulary. (The sign for “crowned” becomes the sign for “mountains.” The rubbing together of the hands for a fire on a hearth becomes the ruffling of fabric, also suggesting kindled flames. The leaning back and prancing of the “Hunt Scene” becomes a duet with the conjoined prancers enclosed by their own beautifully unfolding and enfolding arms, so they are both horses, carriage, and passengers. In both works, performers wave hello at each other. In both, there is slapping.) Whatever ways there are to use his dancers, he uses them. They are nymphs, swains, birds, sheep, water, a giant armchair. They are counsel and consolation to the singers. And in concert—that is, as a troupe—the Mark Morris Dance Group becomes not only the words, but the emotions the words express. It is as if in synesthetic dualism the singers are producing two kinds of rapturously beautiful expression: their voices, and the danced images. When the nymph and her shepherd kiss, it’s like watching people make out in line at K-Mart. They are ordinary. But what they voice is heavenly. This, then, is the pastoral. Eden after the expulsion. Still verdant, still the snakes, but with a need for clothes, and the treachery of death softened by the consolations of the green world.
The action happens inside a series of scrims and drops by Adrianne Lobel (who designed “L’Allegro’s” sets), colored in green and cream, with a garnet veining which either belongs to leaves or people. Isaac Mizrahi matches the palette in frothy unisex skirts that foam divinely about the dancers like rushing water or rustling branches. He differentiates the singers by putting them in real, or real-ish, clothes, to assorted effect. (He’s a designer, not a magician.) Still, it’s the singers’ stage, and Morris sends a very strong message about that. He knows we want him to make dances.
The emotional high point of “Acis and Galatea” occurs near the end, in the soprano’s plangent lament at her unending sorrow. “Must I my Acis still bemoan?” she asks. Alone on the stage, now cast in the deepest ink-blue light (the work of Michael Chybowski), she gleams, lit by two spotlights hung high on the side boxes of the theater. Luminous and solitary, she is the focus not only of our attention but also the chorus’s. They sing with their faces turned to her.
This is drama, and this is drama that in a similar circumstance, Mark Morris claimed for himself. In his “Dido and Aeneas,” this would have been “Dido’s Lament,” and it was a diva moment he danced with a really majestic largesse. Here, the diva moment belongs to the singer.
If you want a category that suits everything Mark Morris makes, I suggest his own word: “show.” Mark Morris puts on shows, with the same open heart with which (as his mother told us) he used to pull himself up on the coffee table before he could walk and dance. You know they are shows because you buy the cast album—or versions of it. You discover the music, or rediscover it. You play “L’Allegro” in the morning. You dance around to “Acis and Galatea” in the evening.
His next work for his company will premiere here in New York City as part of the Fall for Dance Festival in October. The music is from—what else, after this?—Mendelsohn’s “Songs Without Words.” Start downloading now. They’re wonderful.
NANCY DALVA is the Scholar in Residence of the Merce Cunningham Trust, which this year celebrates the Merce Cunningham Centennial.