Dance reviews: Lucinda Childs and Mark Morris

Shawn Gannon and women. Photo: Ken Friedman

What a weekend for dance: Lucinda Childs and Mark Morris back-to-back! The old avant-garde and the ever-new Baroque. Both brought their signature wares to town, to profoundly different effect.

Morris, you may remember, was in the money 23 years ago. Or rather, in Brussels' Monnaie Theatre, where its impresario GĂ©rard Mortier offered to his newly installed dance director "the biggest thing you want to do."

That biggest thing turned out to be the choreographer's full-evening work set to Handel's oratorio L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, the most deservedly bally-hooed of his several visitations to musical antiquity (including Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Gluck et al). And, finally in the Morris company's 30th anniversary season, it came to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a joint enterprise between L.A. Opera and Glorya Kaufman Presents at the Music Center.

Hooray for that! And need I say it was worth the wait?

All the glories that had been analyzed and dissected were intact. But the audience didn't need a guide to them, nor even to be familiar with John Milton's pastoral ode that Handel set to music. Like any masterpiece, it can hold a neophyte in its thrall. And these performances were nothing short of superb.

My god, I don't know where to start first! Well, okay, the music (since Morris, himself, always prioritizes it). Grant Gershon led the L.A. Opera pit orchestra with extraordinary verve and fullness of sound, beside a vocal quartet of Handelians who held the fort ever so handsomely - among them Hei-Kyung Hong and John Relyea, but especially Sarah Coburn, whose high, bright soprano ensilvered the line and Barry Banks whose tenor marked the Baroque roulades with chiseled perfection. Such music-making, along with the orchestral soloists, is rare.

So what do you say when everything, along with pristine production values, works at a peak? The 24 dancers, rehearsed to the teeth, matched, fed off of and re-generated the musicians. To see was to hear and vice versa. It was a case of the single, vibrant heart beat.

Morris manages everything through Handel's handy guide: allegros sprightly and joyous; penserosos melancholy and facing inward; moderatos? Well, not so much, as they're anti-theatrical. And, given the vast life-view of this distinctive dance-maker, you can expect humor of the playfully, unabashed kind, quirky little human tricks that are affectionately adolescent, casual and comic-book cartoonish. (Try the scene with the men suddenly turned into four-legged creatures crawling around the stage.)

Most captivating were the allegros, where dancers flew through their paces with balletic refinement. Wave after wave they came -- soaring, swirling, twirling in streams that cross and criss-cross until the full dimension of these musically charged figures create a blur of sensual exhilaration - their costume colors muted sherbet, gauzy layers of scrim separating them, all of it like an ever-fluctuating kaleidoscopic vision.

For these massed ensemble numbers - with their fluidly complex lines -- Balanchine and Petipa have nothing on Morris.

Among the remarkable soloists was David Leventhal, whose lark impersonation, down to every staccato move, was astonishing. Except for the fact that there were no entrechats (beats) choreographed, he gave us a performance to equal any Bluebird's (The Sleeping Beauty). Another inside joke came in Morris's quoting of Hilarion's demise at the hands of the Willis (Giselle).

All of it came framed in Adrianne Lobel's modular, multi-dimensional, softly-hued rectangles - perfection -- complemented by scrims that appear and disappear in conjunction with James F. Ingalls' immaculately keyed lighting and Christine Van Loon's classic, body-skimming costumes.

It was the entirety of these performance forces, though, that swept me away. I doubt we'll see this level of collaborative artistry between music and dance again soon. The time before, a 1977 Giselle -- with conductor John Lanchbery, Kirkland and Baryshnikov -- took place at Shrine Auditorium.

And it was the entirety of Childs' iconic work, Dance, performed at UCLA's Royce Hall, that offered a return to the sensory deprivation we regularly endured throughout the reign of what a colleague calls "High Minimalism."

Here's what some of us experienced - but not those who fled for their lives, up the aisles, way before the hour-long performance wound down: one section with rotor-armed dancers spinning cross-stage; another with a soloist doing similar things back and forth from upstage to downstage; and finally the ensemble, same stuff, in diagonals and circles. All of it to a scratchy, unfocused tape of Philip Glass' "Dance Nos. 2-5" and Sol LeWitt's film of dancers (an older cast) intermittently superimposed on the live dancers.

The problem with these terminally repetitive sights and sounds: some of us just can't penetrate the sanctum sanctorum of this simple-as-pie Conceptualism. One could develop a Two-Excedrin headache, for which a whole recovery kit is needed. It's possible.

Well, you know what? I prefer the film "Last Year at Marienbad," which adds a little humanizing mystery amid all the repetition of black-and-white stylized purity. You know what else? Dance would work as well as a pinball machine video -- for those who need some stupefaction in their lives.

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