In 1988, when Mark Morris became the director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the first work he choreographed was the landmark “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” set to Handel’s brilliant Baroque pastoral ode of the same name. More than a quarter-century later, it can still be considered the choreographer’s signature masterpiece, and for the first time, the total work is being presented on television.
On Friday at 9 p.m., the PBS series “Great Performances” airs a 2014 performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group from the Teatro Real in Madrid featuring 24 dancers, a full Baroque orchestra led by Jane Glover, a four-part choir, and four solo singers. For those unfamiliar with the work, the production provides a terrific introduction. For those who have seen it live, perhaps during its last run in Boston nearly 10 years ago, it’s a welcome revisiting of one of the choreographer’s most memorable works.
Handel’s “L’Allegro” is itself a masterpiece, a luminous setting of 17th-century poems by John Milton (rearranged by Charles Jennens) that plumbs joy and sadness, mirth and melancholy. The marvel of Morris’s interpretation is that it doesn’t seem as if the choreography is simply set to Handel’s score but rather woven into the very fabric of its conception, a tapestry of music, dance, drama, and poetry.
Sometimes Morris’s movement is a reflection of Milton’s narrative, at other times a complement, and Morris’s gestural vocabulary is both inspired and cheeky. Dancers flock and swoop or soar into elevated arched-back lifts to Milton’s “Sweet bird.” In “Mirth, admit me to thy crew!” they are not only the prancing horses and hunting dogs down on all fours, but the trees that protect the frightened foxes. Somehow, it’s never silly, but totally right.
Musically, the choreography often illuminates the structure of Handel’s phrasing. At other times, the movement provides additional texture, even rhythmic counterpoint. Morris mixes balletic sweep and flow with earthy, folk-influenced line, circle, and figure dances that send the performers stepping, skipping, and spinning into intricate, eye-catching patterns. There are very few solos — this is a work about community. And even if one dancer finds him or herself in solitary contemplation, it isn’t for long. Another dancer will join in, or small groups will enter and exit quickly from the wings, as if to suggest we are seldom truly alone. The final tableau casts the jubilant dancers in a gorgeous triple circle.
With Adrianne Lobel’s sets, inspired by the late watercolors of William Blake, and Christine Van Loon’s diaphanous, pastel costumes, the performance is visually splendid, aided throughout by deft camerawork.
Director Vincent Bataillon starts the film in the darkened pit, as conductor Glover and the singers dramatically set the scene. When the full orchestra enters, so do the dancers, who explode into a flurry of full-court runs leading to “Haste thee nymph,” one of the most vivid embodiments of unadulterated exuberance in all of modern dance. As the work unfolds, Bataillon creates a satisfying balance of close and long shots, mostly giving us a full view to appreciate the scope of the dance, as well as some fabulous overhead angles that showcase Morris’s brilliant layering of imitative patterns.
Mikhail Baryshnikov provides introductions for the work’s two halves. A longtime friend and fan of Morris’s work who has danced in 10 of Morris’s premieres, he is surprisingly stiff, though his insights are spot on. However, the bigger plus are two mini-spots by Morris himself. At the end of the first act, he explains that “we’ve already seen all the moves that are going to get the story across. . . . Now we can concentrate on a different way to see where these things are going.”
And at the end of the work, Morris explains the importance of understanding the music dramaturgically and historically, an attitude that continues to make him one of the most musically sophisticated choreographers of our time. “I consider myself a musician. I choreograph because of the music, specifically to the music.” Nowhere is that more stunningly exemplified than in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.”
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.