Still, this work, which the Mark Morris Dance Group brings to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week for the first time in 13 years, brims with the living visual detail of a pastoral painting. At times you feel you’re looking at a winking Watteau come to life. The dancing creates it all — mood, action and scenery. Over the course of this evening-long meditation on varying emotional states (as the title suggests, they’re shades of cheerful, pensive and even-keeled), the performers may group themselves into a stand of trees, a hedgerow, a horse-drawn carriage and a brace of hunting dogs. Or an undulating sea, then a mountainous ridge, then again the sea.
No expense was spared in this work, and Morris could have had the set designers build him any kind of decor. Instead, he had the dancers dance it.
“You should be able to get that across through dancing, I think,” he said in a recent phone interview from his apartment in New York. “I’m old-fashioned that way. I’d rather pay dancers more than put in a bunch of TV screens. That’s not so interesting to me. I start with props and then I get rid of them, ’cause you don’t need them.”
You don’t need them, that is, if you have the fertile mind of Morris. That he relied on dancing, and dancing alone, to tell this sprawling story of human existence that he had in his head since first hearing the music several years earlier is telling. There is no other choreographer today with Morris’s unbound imagination and the skill to realize it onstage.
At the time of “L’Allegro’s” creation, he was only 32. With his musical and profoundly sensitive works, his approachable dancers and his cheeky personality, Morris had emerged in the 1980s as The One, a Cadillac artist to fill the vacuum left by George Balanchine, whose death in 1983 had raised fears that an era of dance sophistication was over. In truth, Balanchine, the balletmaker, and Morris, who followed no codified dance system, are not the least bit alike. But Morris’s powers of invention are every bit as great, if not greater, with his broader musical tastes and ability to make up fresh moves and veer into different styles with just about every work.