Mark Morris is known to carry music scores into his dance rehearsals, and of late he has even begun conducting the orchestras that accompany his work.
No wonder he applies sound to movement with the care of a priest administering a sacrament.
The sacrament Friday night was the world premiere of his treatment of "Acis and Galatea" by Georg Frideric Handel, performed jointly by the Mark Morris Dance Group and Philharmonia Baroque under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, a co-commission between Cal Performances at UC Berkeley and other performing arts institutions across the country.
This is a pastoral opera on a tale plucked from Ovid's "Metamorphosis" that recounts how the semidivine nymph Galatea, a role sung with rich color by the soprano Sherezade Panthaki, falls hard for the shepherd Acis (the capable tenor Thomas Cooley), who loves her back. Dancers, awash in Isaac Mizrahi's diaphanous leaf green-and-white skirts and corresponding tops for the women, become a world of dancing wood nymphs who fill the stage in a foamy, floaty sea of chlorophyll and sunlight.
Nymph and the shepherd, decked out in less successful green-splattered clothes, are helped along in their love by Acis' pal Damon, a one-man Greek chorus who tells us the couple are "happy on the plains" and in the mountains. Then tragedy arrives in form of the louche Cyclops, giant Polyphemus (the same giant who ate Odysseus' men), sung by powerful bass-baritone Douglas Williams. Groping his way through the dancers toward his heartthrob, Galatea, the Cyclops responds to being rejected by hurling a boulder (a dancer) at Acis, who dies and leaves Galatea bereft. The nymph soon calls upon her semidivine powers to transform her beloved into a crowned immortal.
Adrianne Lobel's sets were a lush confusion of greens and pale blood-reds that managed with only painted drops to create the feeling of woodland and town, helped along by Michael Chybowski's skillful lighting. But the decor was also visually annoying -- was that large green-and-white object on the first drop a vast oak tree whose negative space suggested the beyond? And was that a modern cityscape in another drop superimposed on the first? It was hard at times not to feel like one's vision was failing.
Morris has taken on Handel before, most notably in "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," where Handel's lyricism and humor and John Milton's darkness and light kept the stage humming like a threshing machine. "Acis" is closer to a verdant tone poem than an opera, and its smaller scale felt sized right for an onstage collaboration with dance. Here, dancers and singers thread together seamlessly, traipsing through the mountain and the plain together, the dancers catching the lovers in their froth. In never letting the dance be reduced to a kinetic superscript, Morris triumphs.
But Morris' musical methods aren't for everyone. His manner of pairing movement and sound strikes some dance lovers as a form of simplicity that verges on the literal. To others, his goofy, often broad and bawdy humor seems childish. What few dispute is that Morris is on the side of love and the good, despite knowing how fragile they are.
No other choreographer so explicitly holds fast to these ideals quite as Morris does, nor uses such boyish imagination to embody them. He transforms his dancers into trotting sheep, frolicking sprites and a stepping giant, knowing that delight and optimism are forces that lure us out of bed in the morning.
'acis and galAtea'
Mark Morris Dance Group and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale present Handel's opera
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft and Telegraph, Berkeley
Tickets: $30-$110; 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org