L’ALLEGRO, IL PENSEROSO ED IL MODERATO choreography by Mark Morris, presented by Luminato at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front East), opens Friday (June 21) and runs to Sunday (June 23), Friday-Saturday 7:30 pm, Sunday 3 pm. $45-$95. 416-368-4849, luminatofestival.com.
Dance writers don't toss around the term "masterwork" lightly. But there seems to be a critical consensus about L'Allegro Penseroso Ed Il Moderato, the full-length ensemble work that Mark Morris choreographed in the late 80s to the music of Handel and the poems of John Milton.
Amazingly, the work gets its Canadian premiere only this week, when the Mark Morris Dance Group brings it to Toronto for three performances at Luminato.
Morris himself gets testy about these kinds of designations, and he won't comment on what has made the work so popular that it's remained a mainstay of the company's repertoire for a quarter-century.
"What I have to say is in the dance, not in any description I may come up with about the dance or why people connect to it," he says from California's Ojai Music Festival, where he's guest music director this year.
"I don't feel the need to defend it and I don't get to decide what people feel about it. It's not magic - it's just a wonderful dance to a great piece of music."
Slightly reductive, but also quite true. This is work on a grand scale, created during Morris's tenure as director of dance at the prestigious Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels from 1988 to 91.
He agrees that it probably couldn't have been realized at home in the U.S., where - despite Morris's great success (co-founding the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov, opening his own three-storey dance centre and school in Brooklyn) - budgets for dance have always been modest by comparison.
"I'd been thinking about doing a piece to that music for a while, and when I got the Brussels gig it was the perfect opportunity due to the scale of support. It was a great situation to be in to do that kind of work."
The dance embodies the tension between Handel's and Milton's concepts of contemplative (il penseroso) and joyful (l'allegro) man, using Morris's intimate and lively dance vocabulary, which references American folk dance, ballet and cosmic imagery, among other things. Without characters or elaborate sets and props (a shifting background of colours recalls the paintings of William Blake, another giant of the Enlightenment era), the work is vintage Morris in its incorporation of big music performed live.
"I would no more go on tour without musicians than I would without dancers," Morris says emphatically. "Music is really why I do all of this".
In addition to being an acclaimed performer and choreographer, Morris regularly directs opera and has been conducting on occasion since 2006. For the Toronto presentation of L'Allegro, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (along with soloists) will accompany the full company cast of 24 dancers.
That's a lot of people - but Morris wouldn't have it any other way.
"If you want to go to a movie, that's fine, or if you want to watch TV or one of your devices, that's great," he says.
"But throughout history theatre has traditionally been live people watching and listening to live people. I'm not doing anything new - I'm just doing something that's been let fall away for various reasons that are usually cited as being financial. Using live music's a lot more expensive, with a lot more people, and it's a lot more of a pain in the ass. But it's infinitely superior."