Dido and Aeneas, Ancient Music Made New by Mark Morris and His Accomplished Band of Dancers

We have been fortunate to have had local performances of both L’Allegro,ill Penseroso, ed il Moderato and Dido and Aeneas recently. Count yourself lucky when revivals of Mark Morris Dance Group’s full-length works show up somewhere near you. Each is made with exceptionally grand musical forces as a partner for Mr. Morris’ quirky modernism. Dido and Aeneas accompanied by the Long Beach ensemble Musica Angelica at Barclay Theater on Saturday evening went the extra mile using a period music ensemble, exceptional soloists, and The Bob Cole Chamber Choir to give voice to Purcell’s vivid music. The production was presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County who has generously presented a number of Mark Morris dance works locally.

Lest we forget, Purcell’s opera was once cutting-edge modernism too. It is also a work with epic characters, a known classical narrative, and a brilliant poetic text by Nahum Tate. Morris finds all of those glinting surfaces to fashion dance connections for his remarkable company. They are as much actors as dancers. The opera was already 300 years old when MMDG first presented it as a dance piece at La Monnaie Opera in Brussels in 1988. He maintains much of the original sense of classical pageantry. It even looks quasi-classical in some of its two dimensional presentation. When the singers assigned to each of the characters sing, their on stage counterparts dance. The big difference of course is that the dancing in the original used to be the diversion and the singers were the focus of all the attention. The added layer of interpretation in a sense gives us an even more powerful statement of the original. Enhanced with continuous contemporary movement understandable for our own time, it makes the past feel new, understandable, and close.

You will not see movement like this anywhere else. It exists here as a stand-alone reflection. But it doesn’t come with coded contexts like ballet. When Aeneas’ sailors dance they look heavy, their heel-clicking, hornpipey footwork is noisy, and those stolid second position landings with the arms akimbo tell a working man’s story. These are not the foot-pointing, air borne sailors of “Napoli”, that classical ballet by the sea. Here, you know them by how they move. That goes for the Sorceress and her band of witches who embody the evil of the text: “destruction’s our delight, from the ruin of others our pleasures we borrow”; with their covered eyes and maiming gestures, they make the language clear.

Much of “Dido and Aeneas” unfolds literally. The “drooping wings” of the cupids in the final moving chorus are translated with extended, over turned arms. In Aeneas’ aria near the end of Act I he literally crashes to the ground on the word “fall”. And in the chorus “Cupids strew your path with flowers”, the dancers movements pick up on a little rhythmic motive in the music, mirroring the music with their fast feet and a sweeping arm gesture. The music and dance connection is always in the process of being clearly exposed. For the observer, it helps put us in the middle of the action.

There were many exceptional performances both on stage and in the pit. Douglas Williams and Jamie Van Eyck provided rich singing as soloists for Aeneas and Dido respectively. Laurel Lynch dancing as Dido and the Sorceress (roles originally danced by Morris himself, yeah, it happened) found the heavy, fated ending and the cruel swagger in both roles respectively. Morris conducted the ensemble (which included resonant playing from theorboist Hank Heijink) with a sure hand.

Morris has a fascination with the Baroque and modern music, but not much in between. Other dance modernists (Balanchine, Taylor, Robbins, and Tharp to name a few) have mined the Baroque era as well but mostly they have hewed to instrumental works. But those instrumental pieces, many concertos of one kind or another, are a direct outgrowth of instrumental experiments found in early Baroque opera. The peculiar amalgam that is the MMDG “Dido and Aeneas” only underscores how compositional borrowing and reprocessing are still making the very new out of the very old.

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