This past weekend saw the world premiere of Mark Morris Dance Group’s new work, Acis and Galatea, with the Bay Area’s splendid Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale as the supporting musicians. The music, wonderfully, is Mozart’s 1788 arrangement of a work by Handel, written in 1718. The world premiere took place at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California, Berkeley campus, as one of the last performances of the 2013–14 season at Cal Performances, the presenter and one of the co-commissioners of the production. Cal Performances has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Mark Morris Dance Group. The original text was by John Gay, with later additions attributed to Alexander Pope and John Hughes. Gay is probably best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera, the story of which was used in Brecht and Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper.

Acis and Galatea © Mark Morris Dance Group
Acis and Galatea
© Mark Morris Dance Group

Unlike The Beggar’s Opera, Acis and Galatea retells Ovid’s story of the love of the shepherd Acis and the sea nymph Galatea in a pastoral opera, full of elegant charm: “O the pleasure of the plains!/ Happy nymphs and happy swains.” Morris’ version picks up the lightness of springtime love and the nonsensical imaginings of the 18th century, when the rustic world of shepherds was envisioned as an Arcadia of sweetness. The chorus of nymphs and swains pairs up to dance in concert with the lovers’ joyful declarations.

Two couples – Aaron Loux with Chelsea Lynn Acree and Sam Black with Jenn Weddel – become the embodiment of the shepherd and nymph, dancing pas de deux during the songs, with long sweeping lyrical gestures.

The lighting is bright and the sets, beautifully created as painterly scrims by Adrianne Lobel, are evanescent – the transparency of the fabric pierced here and there through the vaguely landscape imagery to create entrances and exits as if the performers were moving through a forest.

Soprano Sherezade Panthaki sings a richly warm-colored Galatea, and is matched by tenor Thomas Cooley’s Acis. Both have focused and virtuosic voices well suited to the Baroque repertoire. The two lovers sing while wandering through dancers and scrims in a whimsical hunt for each other.

Acis and Galatea © Mark Morris Dance Group
Acis and Galatea
© Mark Morris Dance Group

Morris seems inspired by the essential silliness of the Arcadian vision to push the playfulness of love to a benign extreme. A self-aware silliness has always been a vivid part of Morris’ palette, as witnessed most notably by The Hard Nut. Love, being absurd and unfailingly foolish, is always susceptible to a raised eyebrow and a singsong parody: Acis and Galatea sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. And there is much in the choreography of Acis and Galatea that partakes of that: skipping and bouncing abound as the dancers form and reform into communal dances vaguely reminiscent of contra-dancing, and now and then a very literal miming of the libretto – at one point, the dancers flock past Acis like timid sheep ­– brought laughter from the audience. Gentle satire often provides relief from the gestures of high art.

In Act Two, the monster Polyphemus falls in love with Galatea, and his passion leads ultimately to his murder of Acis. Rather than portray Polyphemus as a cyclopean monster, Morris chooses to make sexual predation his monstrosity. As the happy swains and nymphs skip past him, he grabs each in turn, kissing or fondling until they drop into a heap center stage. Lust is his perversion. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams sings the monster, and his handsome height makes him a formidable and ably voiced presence on stage.

Laurel Lynch performs an impressive solo dance of confrontation to the monster, repeating a pattern of turned-in échappé sautés followed by martial stamps and a swooping battement. She was followed by the male dancers in pairs repeating the sequence.

Acis and Galatea © Mark Morris Dance Group
Acis and Galatea
© Mark Morris Dance Group

The mourning of Acis’ death takes place on a stage bare of sets with only a wash of red light against the upstage screen. Lighting throughout the performance was effectively designed by Michael Chybowski. The costuming by Isaac Mizrahi had its good points – the sheer floral fabric worn by the dancers was every bit the necessary and sensual elegance needed. But this was the third company I’ve seen in the past two months that costumed its men in floor-length skirts and bare chests. It must be the current fad. Less flattering was the soprano’s 1950s short-skirted summer dress, which made her look like an overdeveloped 12-year-old.

Even so, the beauty of the music, blended but also slightly muffled by having the musicians in the pit, and the sheer power of the performers on stage made the performance captivating. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, directed by Nicholas McGegan, are divine. The singers were enchanting and Morris’s dancers superlative.