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Joanna G. Harris
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
United States
San Francisco Bay Area
Berkeley, CA

Mark Morris Dance Company - Dido and Aeneas - MM in Archaic Mode

by Joanna G. Harris
September 18, 2011
Berkeley, CA
Cal Performances: UC Berkeley
September 16-18 2011

Joanna G. Harris
Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
Mark Morris is a genius! For thirty years most audiences and critics have agreed that he, dancer, choreographer, and musician, is one of the most acclaimed artists in the dance world. And, to add to his roster, for these performances he conducted the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale. For me, sometimes he achieves choreographic delight; often he fails.

"Dido and Aeneas," the work he created in 1989 for the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels when he was 'artist in residence' there, is an opera by Henry Purcell (1689) in the 'baroque' manner, i.e. "…a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and with orchestral overtures and interludes…" There are unique stylizations, patterns, voice and forms that define the time period called baroque, including the word 'irregular.' For this viewer, especially regarding the rhythms and forms in Morris' work, it would be more interesting if the patterns were irregular.

It was the fashion, in the early years of modern dance, to accept studies based on various art forms. One was the 'archaic,' …that is imitating figures on Greek vases and on ancient frescos. Martha Graham became the master of this as she composed her various dances based on Greek Myths. Here, with "Dido," Morris has cast almost all the dance postures and gestures with that 'two sided' look, the torso rotated to a frontal plane, the head following. Except for the pleasant interlude in Scene 4 when the sailors on Aeneas's ship dance an ersatz hornpipe when Dancer Lauren Grant and the group provided the full bodied relief, the chorus retained this attitude. It is best when they are sitting on the upstage wall; most of the time it is limiting.

Two aspects of Morris' work are also uncomfortable. First is his complete devotion to the rhythms and phrasing of the music, which most audiences find delightful. But dance is an art form beyond musical visualization and it is refreshing to create a rhythmic line beyond the bar lines. In addition to the phrasing that follows the score most regularly, the choreography illustrates the text, literally. "Fire" is demonstrated by shaking all over; the endless repetition of the word "never" produces a gesture that slices the air. Quick notes are demonstrated by tiny foot steps and Diana, the huntress of the gods, is shown by the bow and arrow motion. So many moves; too much to see. The larger dance lines become obscured in all this 'illustration.'

Originally, Morris himself danced Dido. For this performances he has given the role to a tall woman, Amber Star Merkens who towers over Aeneaus, played by Domingo Estrada, Jr. Merkens also danced the Sorceress who issues the decree for Dido's estrangement and death. Given the challenge of both roles, she performed well, often recalling Morris' interpretation of the role. Estrada was less effective, less heroic in contrast to Merkens powerful portrayal. Her kudos are to be shared by Maile Okamura in the Belinda role.

Besides the sailor's dance, the famous Lament that ends the work was excellent. As Dido lays dead draped on the upstage bench she has occupied for most of the piece, the dancers walk simply upstage and, one-by-one exit upstage center. There are no histrionics. For me, it was the most successful and moving portrayal of how dance musicality works.

Morris, out of sight in the pit, accomplished his interpretation of the 300-year-old score and the rhyming text (attributed to Nahum Tate.) The singers, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, baritone Philip Cutlip and soprano Yulia Van Doren were the resounding voices.
The set, which did not quite suit the Zellerbach stage was by Robert Bordo. James F. Ingalis lighting was often quite dark but the costumes by Christine Van Loon worked.
Morris will continue to enchant audiences with his ability to muster live music in large auditoriums and bring his carefully trained dancers to large orchestral works. This writer sincerely hopes he will break his formula, loosen his patterns and desist from textual mimicry. But I don't expect he will. He has come so far and has been incessantly praised.
Amber Star Merkens as Dido Domingo Estrada, Jr.as Aeneas In Morris' Dido and Aeneas

Amber Star Merkens as Dido
Domingo Estrada, Jr.as Aeneas
In Morris' Dido and Aeneas

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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