with Sequins and Eyelet Detail in 4 Colors
It’s an old story. Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy leaves girl and girl expires of grief. In the case of Dido and Aeneas, it’s as old as Greek epic myth, the stuff of Homer, of a major Berlioz opera (Les Troyens) and, before that, the shorter but durable vocal setting by English composer, Henry Purcell.
So what else is new? Well, try casting a burly guy as both the doomed Queen of Carthage and the evil Sorceress who dooms her, surround him with black-clad dancers who alternate between wild maenads, frozen images on a temple frieze and beer-swilling sailors and then you really have something.
The Mark Morris Dance Group interpretation of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has been knocking audiences out of their seats since it premiered in Brussels in 1989. In its second staging at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, with Morris himself as the somewhat beefy queen, it did no less.
Paired with the wonderfully choreographed Virgil Thompson Four Saints in Three Acts (to be reviewed separately) this program had the audience cheering. (And it was some audience, including Berkeley’s reigning culinary queen, Alice Waters, film star Sharon Stone and her San Francisco newspaper honcho husband, Phil Bronstein, and a host of other luminaries who attended the Cal Performances fundraising gala preceding the show.)
But, of all the stars, choreographer/dancer Morris and his polished troupe shone the brightest. The dark tale of Dido and her doomed passion was considerably lightened by wit, as much a Morris trademark as gender-bending casting and quirky steps. When the Sorceress’ evil minions go on a bit long with their gloating over Dido’s imminent downfall, the sight of Morris, reclining on a bench in total boredom, his hand gestures urging them to get on with it already, is funnier than any standup routine. Anyone who has ever chafed at the seemingly endless ornamentation of this kind of music instantly relates.
Changing from witch to queen with the simple addition of a red hair clip, Morris is equally riotous as a coy damsel, yielding to her lover. Who ever guessed that Greek tragedy could be such a hoot?
But it was not all fun and games. In spite of all the previous foolery, Dido’s death was depicted with appropriate solemn dignity. The farewell of the lovers also was genuinely moving. In the hunt scene, the death of the mythical hunter Actaeon at the hands of his goddess-lover, who mistakes him for a stag, was wonderfully danced by the corps. The sailor’s song "Come Away" is embellished with a joyous hornpipe dance. Volumes of grief are spoken in the angle of an upturned palm. The quick movements of Dido’s two principal attendants, as they urge her to embrace love and joy in the person of Aeneas, contrast beautifully with the stillness of the lovers and the corps, frozen like figures on a Grecian urn.
Morris, perhaps the most musical of contemporary choreographers, uniquely suits his movement to Purcell’s score, which was impeccably performed by members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and the American Bach Soloists, directed by Jeffrey Thomas. Guillermo Resto was a virile, athletic Aeneas and Ruth Davidson and Rachel Murray danced ably as Dido’s attendant friends. The black-clad corps was superb. A Mark Morris performance is usually special for dance buffs. When he goes for Baroque it is even more so.