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Mark Morris gives witty, sensual dance interpretation of Purcell opera


Opera by Henry Purcell.

Directed by Mark Morris.

The Monnaie Dance Group.

Music by Emmanuel Music Group.

Music directed by Craig Smith.

At The Majestic Theatre, June 6-10.

Presented by Dance Umbrella.


TWO WEEKS AGO, MARK MORRIS and his troupe of dancers, now based at the Monnaie Theatre in Brussels, gave their only scheduled American performances of Dido and Aeneas. Poor America -- and lucky Boston -- for this was a superb artistic event. Mark Morris, as choreographer and star, dancing the roles of both Dido and her evil counterpart, the sorceress, led his dancers through a sensual, witty performance of great beauty.

The action was wonderfully married to the music, deeply expressive of the emotional content of the story without being too literally representational. Baroque music, with its symmetries and order regulating the invention, provides an inspiration to the liberating vigor of modern dance, and can often supply a particularly striking accompaniment to it. Morris' choreography acknowledged not only the beauty and vitality of Purcell's music, but also that slight sense of silliness that lingers in the background of the baroque. The long, skipping runs with which the singers ended some of their arias were accompanied by some equally delicate, inventive movement, an act both of divine insanity and a little ridiculous, subverting the operatic grandeur of the emotions.

Except for the principals, the dancers were dressed alike, clad in black T-shirts and long black sarongs; hair, lipstick, and earrings were colored to match. Although the androgynous dancers usually worked together, each moved independently giving the choral dancing a textured feel. One's eye absorbed the action across the whole stage, as if appreciating the beauty of a field of wheat rippling in the wind, but was continually drawn this way and that to the beauty of the individual movements comprising this pattern. Every gesture, down to the crooking of a finger joint, was part of the pattern. The hands, as sweeping fans of fingers or the jut of a fist, are important elements in Morris' symbolic repertoire, and sometimes they even formed the sign language of the deaf.

Morris himself is a virtuoso performer, both in his technical mastery and also in his gorgeous presence on stage. His Dido was no crude drag queen, but a grand diva, awash in her own tragedy, her sexuality all the more compelling for its ambiguity. Here too Morris' wit surfaced; we noticed the theatricality of Dido's grief when she was alone with her serving women, encouraging them to excesses of woe.

Aeneas, played by Guillermo Resto, was a paragon of classical male beauty, stripped to the waist to display his sculptured back and fearsome Mediterranean profile. His dancing was tight and formal, built around a range of stock arm gestures that bespoke the facade Aeneas must construct to justify his departure to Dido. Only at the moment of their brief coupling did his angularity yield, in a scene that with a few rolling movements and the gentlest of brushings by a trailing arm conveyed a wealth of sensuality. The two lovers had one quick exchange of glances that typified the playfulness that Morris would sometimes mingle with the tragedy. Standing like a warrior, with his back to the audience, Aeneas sings "Behold upon my bending spear, A monster's head stands bleeding," raising his sarong as he does so. The rest of the cast are turned away, but Dido, sitting beside him, glances quickly down at his crotch. The movement passes almost immediately, one cheeky twist amid a tapestry of detail.

Musically, the performance was tight and exciting. The need to keep a more regular rhythm for the benefit of the dancers did not unduly compromise Craig Smith's creativity, and only at one point in Dido's "Your counsel all is urged in vain" did the singing lapse a little.

Although only a little more than an hour long, this performance packed more creativity and vitality than I've seen on stage for some time. We can only hope that Morris can be lured from his Belgian home to perform for us again.