As Handel made music of John Milton’s poems L’Allegro and il Penseroso , Mark Morris made Handel’s music dance. The 32 scenes of Morris’ ballet breathe with inspiration of figures and designs from watercolours William Blake did for an edition of Milton’s poems. From Milton to Morris to the audience last night, 350 years of joy and serenity flowed unbroken as a rainbow from the first dance to the finale.

Mark Morris Dance Group © David Leyes
Mark Morris Dance Group
© David Leyes

The event, and it was a blessèd one, opened with an overture by Handel, Jane Glover conducting the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, its plangent, aetherial tones setting the mood just right. The curtain went up on a set seemingly made of geometries of light in which weightless dancers moved in patterns like depictions of the three classical graces. There is something about Morris’ choreography that gives the sense his dancers are doing more than dancing to the music, they are actually dancing the music. As the spirit goes from cheerful to grave to mirthful, Adrianne Lobel’s minimalist set lit by James F. Ingalls takes on the bright colours and lines of a Jack Bush painting inhabited by a dozen jolly dancers costumed by Christine Van Loon in variegated pastel tights and chiffon dresses tripping “the light fantasic toe”. Karina Gauvin’s soprano warms the air brushed into richer textures by Tafelmusik Chamber Chorus. “Care” has been banished, the dancers are laughing, the audience is smiling. Then the mood swings to “il Penseroso”.

The “Penseroso” mood that is contrasted here with the opening, joyful “Allegro” is not melancholy in the sense of depression. It is more the serious “sober, steadfast”, solitary mood of study and contemplation, and the rewards it brings to the spirit. In the libretto, “Penseroso” is pictured by Milton variously as a “pensive Nun, devout and pure”, and as a “sweet bird” chanting evensong to the “wandering moon”. All this the barefooted dancers do through solos and in groups from 2 to 24. In the flow of their dance they pose as trees and shrubs, give birth to gods, become larks ascending, packs of dogs and the foxes they hunt, nymphs and shepherds shagging, groups of guys who fight, kiss and slap asses, ordinary folk falling asleep at home to dream while rings of muses spin among the stars.

Mark Morris’ choreography is daringly literal. It is also literally dancing as we know it from our experience of celebrating communal joys with square dancing, folk dancing, line dancing, and every form of dancing that involves the pleasure of stepping, running, leaping, hopping, tumbling, climbing, flopping, even limping – to the music. But the flow of Morris and the dancers of his Dance Group takes us through the ordinary to the extraordinary and beyond. For two full hours the energies of the dancers never flag as they flow with the music, sometimes solo, in duets, trios or in chorus; sometimes arranged onstage in lines separated by screes like sections of instruments playing in imitation of each other; sometimes flowing past each other like lines of counterpoint; sometimes repeating themselves like canons; sometimes varied like fugues; sometimes like rondos or passacaglias. The dancers do things with their bodies we can’t even imagine till we see them doing it, and that is one of the blessings of artistic imagination that we enjoy. But here’s the genius of Mark Morris: no matter how amazingly complex or daring the forms, his dances always seem simple, direct, not needing interpretation. The dancers are the music, the music is the feeling, and we the audience get it.

The audience rose as one for the ovation. Mark Morris came onstage to share it with the first among those who deserved it – the musicians representing the impeccable Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir – conductor, Jane Glover, and the four soloists, sopranos Karina Gauvin and Shannon Mercer, tenor Thomas Cooley and bass-baritone Douglas Williams. They deserved it because, for a little while, they were instrumental in joining us to heaven and earth.

*****