What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

‘L’Allegro,’ a Mark Morris masterwork, makes its television debut

Thirty-five years after starting his dance company, Mark Morris is making the leap to television with a production of "L'Allegro" on PBS’ Great Performances. Jeffrey Brown talks to the famed choreographer.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's widely considered one of the masterworks of contemporary dance. And tonight on "Great Performances," viewers have a chance to see for themselves.

    And again to Jeffrey Brown, who has our preview, with choreographer Mark Morris.

  • MARK MORRIS, Choreographer:

    It's the longest whole dance, probably two or three times longer than anything I had done.

    I had a wonderful situation. It's all I worked on for several months. It probably took about three months to choreograph it, working every day, with everybody really killing — knocking themselves out.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Everything about the dance "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" is grand, its sweep of movement and color, its 32 scenes brought to life by two dozen dancers, its music, the piece with full orchestra and voices, written in 1740 by Handel using poems by Milton.

  • MARK MORRIS:

    I heard it and I pretty much immediately knew that I was eventually going to have to deal with it and make it into an evening of dancing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Three years ago, marking the dance's 25th anniversary, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote that — quote — "seemed a masterpiece in its opening season." Twenty-five years on, it's also a classic.

    But, says Mark Morris now, it wasn't easy.

  • MARK MORRIS:

    I have been probably fun during the rehearsal process than I was during this one. But it was really…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have been more fun?

  • MARK MORRIS:

    I have more fun. I got a little bit — I freaked out.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Morris started his dance company in 1980, when he was just 24, and danced himself in many of his works until recent years. "L'Allegro" early on cemented his place as one of the era's leading choreographers and showcased the elements that have come to characterize his work.

    There's the beautiful symmetry of movement, as seen here in what's called "The Ladies Dance." There's also the sheer fun, low comedy, if you will, in a section called "The Stupid Men Dance."

    The original name of Milton's poem, "L'Allegro," "The Happy One," and "Il Penseroso," "The Thoughtful One," inspired Morris as two sides of life and he plays with that reality throughout the dance.

  • MARK MORRIS:

    It's not like bipolar disorder. It's more like half-full and half-empty kind of thing.

    And so it's not characters. It's people. It's communities. It's civilization, it's individuals, and it also cites many, many examples of natural life, of forests and animals and birds and cities. In order to get all of that across, I was compelled to make my dancers behave as not just people, but animals and shrubberies and fireplaces. So the dancers are the living decor and they're the wonderful characters. So, it's complicated.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You're smiling as you say that. You like the idea of turning your dancers into all those things.

  • MARK MORRIS:

    Yes, exactly. Yes. Well, they're very imaginative and very versatile.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In 2001, Morris' company moved into a permanent home in Brooklyn, itself a grand space for rehearsals, performances and classes that attract more than 8,000 students, young and old.

    Meanwhile, the company itself continues to evolve, including the group performing in the TV production of "L'Allegro."

  • MARK MORRIS:

    Now, for the first time, there isn't one person who was in it in the first performance. I think of the people who used to do those parts. And a lot of them are good friends of mine or still work with me, but the dance keeps moving on, and the personnel changes as it goes, but the steps don't change.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So now it's a multigenerational dance.

  • MARK MORRIS:

    Yes, exactly. So they are all going to be home crying a little bit in front of their TV sets with the beautiful memories of having done it, because it's a very beautiful piece. I can't resist telling you that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What about for you, changes in 25-plus years?

  • MARK MORRIS:

    None. Zero. There are no — there's difference, except now, if I drop something on the floor, I wait until I drop two more things before I pick it up. That's all.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARK MORRIS:

    I spend less time getting up off the ground than I used to.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In Mark Morris' grand piece, of course, it's the dancers who do all the work now. The full performance on "Great Performances" can be seen tonight.

    From New York, for the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest