“Dido and Aeneas”
Mark Morris Dance Company
Mostly Mozart Festival
August 22, 212
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
In 1989, Mark Morris—then a Brussels-based enfant terrible with the resources of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie to hand—choreographed a danced version of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” and infamously cast himself as both its tragic heroine—Dido, the legendary queen of Carthage—and her arch-nemesis, the Sorceress. He retired from the role in 2000 and for a time put “Dido” in mothballs. Six years later, he revived the work and it has remained in his company’s active repertory ever since, with at least one performance run presented somewhere every year. For most of that time Amber Star Merkens and the recently retired Bradon McDonald have performed the dual lead on alternate nights. It’s been a dozen years since Morris relinquished the role—he’s been out for longer than he was in—and still a surprising amount of the buzz in advance of the work’s sold-out return to New York kept circling back to the fact that someone other than Morris would be dancing.
There’s more to this state of affairs than nostalgia for the naughty little thrill of in-your-face cross-dressing or even the fact that New York hadn’t seen anyone but Morris perform both roles on the same night. His long shadow speaks to the power of a particular kind of theatricality. When Morris took the stage you forgot that Dido was being danced by a man, even though he took no pains to disguise it. But you never, ever forgot that she was being danced by Mark Morris. It was his brazen refusal to lose himself in the role that was outré—and utterly unforgettable—not the gender-bending. The sheer scale of his personality—the quality an opera aficionado would call temperament—gave Dido and the Sorceress a diva’s grandeur and set them apart from everyone else in their orbit.
Purcell’s brisk little opera—it’s barely an hour long—is loosely based on Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid.” Aeneas, the Trojan prince whose destiny it is to found Rome, has taken refuge in Carthage with his fleet. Dido is troubled by her love for him, but yields both to her passion and his entreaties. Meanwhile, deep in a cave, the Sorceress calls forth her minions and plots Dido’s undoing. She separates the couple by means of a storm, and sends a spirit disguised as Mercury to tell Aeneas that Jove commands him to set sail at once for Italy. He complies and readies his fleet. As he takes his leave, Dido rebukes him for what she perceives as his perfidy, sings her famous lament (“When I am laid in earth”), and dies.
The action alternates between the mirror-image courts of Dido and the Sorceress. They’re not quite rival queens—Dido is completely unaware of the Sorceress’ existence—but both Purcell and Morris make much of the contrast between them. The Sorceress, who doesn’t appear in Virgil, has been hauled in from another tradition for precisely that comparison. Dido is noble, tragic, eternal; she and her court look like a Greek vase or a Baroque depiction of Arcadia come to life. The Sorceress is coarse, bawdy, a caricature. She squats; she writhes; her minions collide into pratfalls like the Keystone Cops. When Dido spreads her arms and gives her shoulders a rapid shake, she’s miming the storms Aeneas braved at sea. When the Sorceress recapitulates the gesture, she’s just shaking her tits.
Amber Star Merkens, who performed the dual lead for the New York run, doesn’t have Morris’ outsized personality but she’s tall, slim-hipped, and broad shouldered—rangy where Morris was plush—and blessed with a beautiful aquiline profile straight out of antiquity. Squint, and she could be a kouros. If she didn’t make you forget Morris, she certainly made the case that “Dido” could succeed without his brand of personal theater.
Her precisely etched Dido was, until the last scene, austere rather than monumental. She moved beautifully, especially at speed, but she didn’t give the role’s archaic, highly stylized poses the sculptural weight needed to fill them with emotional power. Yet she made the most of the spare and moving solo Morris crafted for Dido’s lament. As the aria began, Dido took the hand of her sister, Belinda (Maile Okamura), who remained seated on a bench. With face and form averted, she paced around her in a slow, measured circle, her arm stretched to its limit against her sister’s grasp as if it were her last tether to life. Merkens leaned into the gesture with her full weight; when she released herself into an exquisitely controlled, feather-light turn it was as if her soul had been freed at last from torment.
“Dido” is performed on a unit set without with only a few seconds of darkness to mark the speedy transition from one scene to another. The entire cast wears the same calf-length black sarongs, although Aeneas gets to dispense with the uniform’s black tank top. Dido and the Sorceress both get long silver fingernails. The only way to tell the difference between them is their hairdo—Dido’s is up, the Sorceress’s is down—and the way they move. Much of that’s built into the choreography, but Merkens added a clever twist of her own.
The Sorceress is a drag role, pure and simple. When Morris danced her, she was all bitchy, mean-girl malice. Paradoxically, Merkens was at her best here. She adjusted her center of gravity and danced the Sorceress like a man emulating a woman; it made you sit up and take notice. She spiked the role with the frisson of artificiality it needs, but went light on the blowsy camp—and was more vivid for it.
As a singing role, Purcell’s Aeneas is pared back to the near-vestigial: he doesn’t even get a real aria. Morris is similarly sparing with his dance material. Aside from a celebratory dance with Dido and the ensemble at the end of Scene 1, Aeneas spends a lot of time arranging himself in postures reminiscent of Minoan frescoes. Guillermo Resto, the role’s originator, looked like he’d just rolled in from Knossos. Domingo Estrada Jr.—muscular, but with a bantam’s quickness—is in the wrong role: he’s kind of dancer you want to see move. He looked great with his shirt off, but didn’t have weighted gravitas of a man of destiny, and Dido needs that kind of foil to throw her pathos into relief.
Morris’ approach to Purcell’s opera is literal. A dancer has been assigned to each singing role in a one-to-one correspondence; the ensemble only dances when the chorus sings or during orchestral interludes. Morris doesn’t just hew to the storyline: his dancers act out the text via a strictly enforced palette of gestures. Some are trite: fluttery fingers for “flames” or a mimed bowshot for “hunt.” Some are more esoteric: a straight-backed bend from the waist with the feet in parallel fourth position and the arms pointing back in a “V” is associated with “torment.” To an eye accustomed to the abstract vocabulary of most modern Western concert dance, this tactic can look suspiciously like the choreographic equivalent of lip-syncing—especially when a cluster of obvious gestures lands atop a passage of less-than-inspired music visualization.
Morris appears to have taken inspiration from non-Western dance traditions that combine mime with expressive gesture. The Second Woman—danced by a luminous Rita Donahue—entertains Dido and Aeneas during a royal hunt with legend of Diana and Acteon. She gently stamps her heels in a soft plié and mimes their story with graceful hands in an obvious homage to Indian classical dance. (See here and here.)
When Morris successfully lines up text, music, gesture, and more purely expressive movement—as he does in the dances set to Dido’s two arias—the effect is genuinely moving. Sometimes he finds an image that captures the ineffable. After Dido rejects Aeneas’ offer to defy the gods and stay, the chorus sings a slow chorale to the text “Great minds against themselves conspire / And shun the cure they most desire.” The ensemble moves forward through an awkward series of slow, walking turns, first with their torsos bent forward toward their knees, then with their heads and shoulders thrown up and back, like mad philosophers staring into the sun. It’s an expanded variation on a movement earlier linked with “die” and is followed by the marker for “torment.” It’s neither aligned with the text nor a direct visualization of the music—and it tells us something about a state of mind that mere words can’t express.
Morris’ best storytelling happens when he doesn’t have a text to be loyal to. He packs an evening’s worth of drama into the little half-minute Ritornelle that opens Scene 3. He uses it for a depiction of Dido and Aeneas’ lovemaking that tells you everything you need to know about her plight. Aeneas is already gazing out over the sea to his destiny; when Dido slips into his empty arms it never registers. It’s the saddest one-night stand you’ll ever see.
The vocal soloists and the excellent, sixteen-voice Trinity Choir were in the pit with the MMDG Music Ensemble, conducted by Morris. (He’s been conduction “Dido” since 2007.) Stephanie Blythe—the big name in the vocal ensemble—sang both Dido and the Sorceress. Her molten, force-of-nature voice threatened to overwhelm the music: her Dido was monumental, if a little lacking in expressive color and nuance. A natural comedienne, she was a blast as the Sorceress.
Morris took some of the music at a too-brisk clip: it looked great on stage but played havoc with the singers’ diction. His choreographic approach turns on our being able to link text, music, and movement into a meaningful whole; at times we couldn’t understand the words and may have lost the thread. Still, it’s a privilege to hear Purcell’s wonderful music performed by musicians of this caliber, and we owe Morris a debt of gratitude for keeping it real.
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photo by Costas
Domingo Estrada Jr., Amber Star Merkens, and the Mark Morris Dance Group in “Dido and Aeneas”