What's Fine about the Arts

Mark Morris Dance Group at Zellerbach Hall (1988-performed at Zellerbach, in 2009)
George Frederic Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato  (1740)
Conductor: Jane Glover
Chamber Chorus of UC Berkeley
Pastoral ode after poems by John Milton (1645) (rearranged by Charles Jennens in 1740)
Costume designer: Christine Van Loon
Lighting designer: James F Ingalls
Set designer: Adrianne Lobel




Handel wrote L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in seventeen days in 1740 during one of the coldest winters in London’s recorded history and during what might be also called a “dark night of the soul” in his own career.  The work personifies two of Milton’s poems written approximately 100 years earlier, “L’Allegro” – The Joyful Man, and “Il Penseroso” – The Contemplative Man.  Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens added a third voice “Il Moderato” as a sort of middle-man, a tempered, rational side to moderate the other two more extreme states of man.  About 250 years later, Mark Morris choreographed Handel into a work of Contemporary Art with such heart-felt precision, such integration of all the Fine Arts that it can only be described as Beauty personified.

Yes, Beauty.  For years the experience of Beauty, as well as the value of Art, has been demeaned by the semantics of postmodern analysis to the point of being unable to define either Art or Beauty, unable to experience the harmony of integration.  In our attempts and inability to define it exactly, or to separate what is Art from what is any other activity, we have leveled Art in the minds of citizens and thus have diminished access to its cathartic, uplifting, humanizing experience. All of the arts from Modernism to the present day separated this from that, form from content, color from shape, sound from melody, words from narrative.  Many interesting insights were gained from this, new vocabularies emerged, but something also was lost, something also became a pile of missing pieces.

In a 1999 interview Mark Morris emphasizes that his dance is always about the music.  And while it was a fruitful exercise to explore, à la Merce Cunningham and John Cage et al, what happens when we separate Dance from Music, or even Music from Instruments, Dance Is About Music.  This is one thing that is viscerally present in a Mark Morris performance, the precise union of the dancers and the music, a union that creates a synergetic response in the audience—augmenting the feeling of elevation and of depression.  Something larger begins to take place during the performance; more than the movements of a single dancer or instrument, more than the synchronistic sensory experience of body and sound, of actor and receiver, something vibrates in the entire theatre.  Everything has been choreographed to this end—the stage scrims and lighting evoke Rothko paintings, the simple costumes of paired colors that interact in various formations.  We are carried into the depths of Melancholy and from that place are not told to take anti-depressants, but instead Milton reminds us:

May at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown, and mossy cell
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of ev’ry star that Heav’n doth shew,
And ev’ry herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.

These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.

These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And we with thee will choose to live.


And finally, through all the movements of this complex work, we come back to L’Allegro and the conviction that indeed we will live although our eyes filled with tears of sorrow and of joy….

Orpheus’ self may heave his head,
From golden slumbers on a bed
Of heap’d Elysian flow’rs, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regain’d Eurydice.

These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.

These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee we mean to live.


Pacia Sallomi
July, 2009