On May 15th at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Irvine, CA, the top of Mark Morris’ head could be seen from the orchestra pit, his baton leading members of the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and the Bob Cole Chamber Choir. Nahum Tate’s libretto of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera, Dido and Aeneas, formed the script for Morris’ seminal operatic work of the same name.
At first, a choreographer stepping into the pit to conduct his music seemed like an act of self-indulgence. I’ve read about Morris’ personal love for the music he employs, but perhaps his background in dance wrongly obscured my ability to perceive his other talents. Of course, after you’ve seen how musical his choreography is, you begin to understand how well he must know the music, and Morris has been conducting the work since 2008, leaving only three performance series, in 2006 and 2007, in which he did not appear either onstage or at the conductor’s podium. Back up to 1989, and you have Morris in the dual role he conceived for himself: both as Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the evil Sorceress who plots the queen’s demise. The dance, which is nearly as old as I am, has almost never existed without its choreographer in a visible role as either a dancer or conductor. Perhaps his presence is part of its life force–both in this case and for many other choreographers who become famous performing in their own companies until they must stop.
The dance’s was able to step clearly between literal interpretations of Tate’s English lyrics (“Behold!”, said Aeneas, and, facing upstage, hilariously whipped open the front of his skirt before the rest of the cast) and more abstract concepts. Seeing Morris’ silent baton directing what I was hearing, I wondered how he might have described his choreography when teaching it to this next generation, especially for the roles he’d danced of Dido and the Sorceress. Details from his singular movement vocabulary popped out at me: hands flexed with only the third finger extended straight towards the floor, flicks of the wrist mimicking the soprano Sheherazade Panthaki’s vibrato, and laden eyes that seemed to share an ongoing inside joke. Intention was clearly present among the well-synchronized dancers, but not necessarily always forthcoming. The fourth wall still preserved some sense of mystery, befitting the three-century-old epic.
What also struck me was how clearly setting could be communicated purely by physical behavior. Darkness was conveyed during a long, but not boring, sequence in which the dancers took a few steps in all different directions, their hands held in front of their faces to prevent them from seeing where they stepped. Shots thrown back and fights picked amongst the group painted the picture of timeless rowdiness. Later, the chorus of dancers was a crew on an unsteady ship, tossing pantomimed heavy rope from either side of a massive vessel. The actual set, designed by visual artist Robert Bordo, was a simple, low-to-the-ground colonnade along the back of the stage, a bench downstage of the same construction, and a few black scrims, which added up to more than the sum of their parts. Equally, the costume design proved capable of denoting both a woman’s simple black dress, tied at the waist (and accentuated, on both male and female bodies, by silver hoop earrings, nail polish, and makeup) and a sailor’s harem pant, by the maneuver of a single tuck between the legs.
The final scene marked the death of Dido, whose musical counterpart repeated, “Remember me, but forget my fate.” Hand in hand, her sister Belinda circled the bench, which now eerily suggested a coffin. The two distributed their weight between them such that either would surely fall if the other let go; meanwhile, as the phrase was repeated, the cast slowly exited one by one over the colonnade and through a fold in the upstage curtain.
What I loved most about this work was that Morris gave you multiple openings through which to enter it. If you are a dance person as I am, you have the dance. If you’re an opera buff, you have the music and its lyrical poeticism. Let’s return to my mistaken notion that a choreographer might be recognized solely for his or her ability to stage, and often perform, his/her dances–and consider this particular dance, a medium which successfully deploys space, time, sound, visuals, history, text, the human body itself–and applaud Morris for conducting the music and the dance, and its striking subtleties, over 25 years after beginning it.