“Curlew River” and “Dido and Aeneas”
Mark Morris Dance Group
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York
by Gay Morris
copyright © 2017 by Gay Morris
Mark Morris has always been interested in music, but in 1989, when he premiered “Dido and Aeneas,” that interest was expressed primarily through dance. He also continued to be concerned with the gender issues that marked the first decade or so of his work. The current program of the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Brooklyn Academy of Music illustrates how far he has come from those days. It is billed as two operas and features Benjamin Britten’s “Curlew River,” created in 1964, as well as “Dido and Aeneas.” Morris premiered this production of the Britten opera at Tanglewood in 2013. “Curlew River,” inspired by Japanese noh theater, contains movement for singers, but no dancers. “Dido and Aeneas,” while remaining a danced work (with opera singers out of sight in the pit), originally starred Morris in the leading roles of both Dido and the Sorceress, placing gender at its heart. Now these roles are taken by a woman, Laurel Lynch, making gender, if an issue at all, a minor one.
Purcell’s opera concerns Aeneas, the Trojan warrior and founder of Rome, who dallies briefly with the Queen of Carthage before continuing on his sea journey at the behest of a Sorceress, Dido’s nemesis. When Aeneas leaves, Dido, in despair, kills herself. Morris created Dido and the Sorceress, whether purposefully or not, to serve his own body and personality. Tall and zaftig, with a sinuous movement style, he was able to convey a feminine monumentality in the character of the queen that heightened her tragedy. At the same time he contrasted this role with a raunchy, but equally powerful persona in the Sorceress.
In this current production, with the absence of a strong gender element, the focus necessarily is on the dances and the unfolding of the plot. Morris is noted for using gestures that pantomime the words or narrative of the story being told, which he then transposes into choreographed movement. Here there are many such gestures, which are coupled with angular movement reminiscent of Nijinsky’s “L’après midi d’un faune.” Whether it is due to a lack of conviction on the part of the dancers, or simply changing times and Morris’s own more complex later dances, the choreography looks at once simplistic and over stated, as if played for laughs rather than high tragedy. Lynch is a large, handsome woman, who towers over her Aeneas (Domingo Estrada, Jr.), as Morris did Guillermo Resto in the original cast. Although this hints at the heroic nature of the queen, Lynch, of course, reads as a woman, so that the gender ambiguity of the original is lost and with it much of the power and sorrow that went with it. It is only in the last scene, when Dido confronts her imminent death, that Lynch is able to make the role her own. Otherwise, it remains a shadow of Morris’s own performance.
Lincoln Kirstein once remarked that modern dance was not viable because it was dependent on personality rather than an impersonal vocabulary. He was undoubtedly thinking of Graham, and he was wrong in the sense that modern dance continued after her, but there may have been a grain of truth in his words. At least in the case of Dido and the Sorceress, it appears that roles created by and for one charismatic and highly individual artist are difficult for others to assume.
As for “Curlew River,” I can only comment on the movement elements. Britten based the opera on the noh drama Sumida- gawa (Sumida River), reset as a fictional Curlew River in the English fens. He also incorporated Christian aspects, such as an opening processional when the singers enter chanting a hymn, and conceiving the work as “a parable for church performance.” Britten used men for all the characters, as is done in noh, and which also suggests a congregation of monks.
The plot deals with a madwoman who has lost her son, visits the river in search of him, and, finding his grave, hears his spirit speak to her. This not only gives her comfort, it cures her madness, which in Britten’s telling is a sign of God’s grace. In addition to the plot, Britten also created a noh sense of slowed time, so that the work has a ritualized quality. Apparently Morris wanted to give it a more natural style, so in this production the singers are dressed casually in white pants and shirts and Morris moves them about the stage in groupings that allow them to react to each other informally. Although in certain instances this realism is effective, it undercuts the ritualization of the action, making the work seem interminable rather than abstract. Noh theater is an ancient, refined form, where highly trained actors, elaborate costumes, and minutely calibrated timing create a floating world where the drama, distanced and impersonal, is distilled and made powerful. This would seem to be at odds with Morris’s concept, which brings the work closer to earthly reality and to a prosaic world of everyday life. The most poetic aspect of this “Curlew River” may be Robert Bordo’s designs, which are dominated by huge white draperies at the back of the stage that seem to breathe and alter subtly during the work.
It should be added, in terms of Morris’s continued artistic development, that he conducted both works, something he has started to do in recent years and which reveals new directions in his musical interests.
Photos, all copyright by Nan Melville, from “Dido and Aeneas” (top two) and "Curlew River," bottom.