PREVIEW The year was 1988. Mark Morris and his intrepid dancers lived in Belgium. Not too happily. Morris and the good citizens of Brussels were not exactly a match made in heaven. Yet there they were: the Monnaie, the city's gilded opera house; professionally-designed costumes and sets; a full orchestra and a chorus of 43-plus soloists. And, please let us not forget, there was also Milton, Handel, and Blake. No wonder Mark Morris and his 24 dancers threw themselves into a project that was bigger and more challenging than anything they had yet undertaken. Resources like that including six rehearsals with the orchestra Morris was never to have again after his return to the U.S. three years later. Yet the premiere of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was not a success. Critics and audiences couldn't warm to Morris' version of modern dance. It didn't look like dance. In the intervening years, this exquisitely danced oratorio has traveled around the world (not too often, because it is expensive to produce) and remains one of Morris' supreme achievements. Morris, who is a stickler for respecting a composer's intentions, did take a few liberties with the original. The Milton-Handel work considers whether happiness or melancholy is the better state to strive for. Milton and Handel voted for melancholy, Morris for happiness. Blake provided visual inspiration. L'Allegro returns to Berkeley for the fourth time. It is perhaps as a thank-you to Robert Cole, departing director of Cal Performances, who started bringing Morris to the Bay Area in 1987, when most of us still wondered, "Who is Mark Morris?"
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP Fri/29-Sat/30, 8 p.m.; Sun/31, 3 p.m., $36$82. Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft at Telegraph, UC Berkeley, Berk. (510) 642-9988. www.calperfs.berkeley.edu