Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas was created in 1989, in Belgium. I saw it for the first time on March 30, 2016, in Minneapolis. In this work, Morris’ once-irreverent movement style intersects with ancient Greek mythology and English composer Henry Purcell’s 17th century opera to tell the tragic story of two doomed lovers.
Onstage, the mood alternated between an ethereal garden feel — blue-green fabric and marley, a beam of warm light, and white benches — and a dark, sensuous environment — long velvety curtains hanging from golden rods, amidst shadows and dark lighting. Dancers stood, walked, and sat all across the stage, shifting in and out of symmetry, moving in and out of unison. Whether in a moment of balance or disruption, the dancers moved with assured precision. Often, they assumed statuesque postures reminiscent of the images found on a Grecian urn. These positions made the dancers appear flattened, even two-dimensional. I enjoyed that optical illusion.
Though the scene onstage was quite Greek, Morris’ background in Spanish dance still shined through. Throughout the evening, hovering arms and unraveling fists were punctuated by percussive slaps, stomps, and slides of the feet. All of the movements aligned exactly with the rhythmic structure, mood, and intention of Purcell’s music and lyrics. Morris’ choreography was a good match for these musical and narrative ideas and the structure seemed appropriate. Still, the constant parallel grew tiresome to watch after a while and I found myself wishing for contrast or counterpoint. Nonetheless, as I watched Dido and Aeneas, I was reminded once again of the difference that live music makes. In the program notes, Morris made his commitment to working with live musicians clear. I appreciate the stance he takes.
Dido and Aeneas began and ended with sequences that, though often asymmetrical, were organized and thoughtfully presented. In some of the piece’s middle sections, however, Morris seemed to have lost choreographic steam. I had an especially hard time grasping the compositional logic of his choice to have the ensemble play a game of improvised call and response that, though fun to watch for a bit, lagged for five or more minutes. Even though this piece retold a tragic story, people laughed during Dido and Aeneas, usually after a movement that seemed out of context (like the Sorceress’ shimmies!) or during a clownish scene (like the witches’ victory duet).
When this piece originally premiered in 1989, Morris cast himself in the dual role of Dido and the evil Sorceress with the intention of creating a male role that required expressiveness that Morris thought was exclusive to female roles in dance. Scholars have also claimed that this choice places the piece in a mythic territory where gender and morality cannot be regarded in conventional terms. Since then, the piece has been performed with Dido played by a woman and Aeneas by a man and also with one woman playing both roles. The performance I saw had the latter sort of cast. Laurel Lynch performed both roles. Though she was articulate and expressive, the dual role casting did not work for me. I also couldn’t help but notice that the cast for Dido and Aeneas was almost entirely racially homogenous, while otherwise diverse in height, appearance, shape, and movement style with nearly every member of MMDG boasting a college degree. Perhaps Morris’ ideas on how college dance programs ruin dancers have morphed over the years like his casting choices for this work.
No matter the update in casting or philosophy, Dido and Aeneas is like a journey through the aesthetic ages that stops abruptly in the late 1980s. If museums could house dance works, this piece would be a good fit.