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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Dido and Aeneas'

by Carmel Morgan

February 15, 2008 -- George Mason University Center for the Arts - Fairfax, Virginia

In its touring season premiere, the Mark Morris Dance Group (“MMDG”), along with the MMDG Music Ensemble and the George Mason University Singers, presented the hour-long work “Dido and Aeneas” at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on February 15, 2008. This modern dance masterpiece is sweeping in scope and opulent in expression. 

Morris choreographed “Dido and Aeneas” in 1989, and he first danced the lead roles of Dido and the Sorceress himself. This time out, Morris conducted the MMDG Music Ensemble in its performance of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera. The singers – Katherine Dain (“Second Woman”), Yulia Van Doren (“Belinda” and “First Witch”), Jamie Van Eyck (“Dido” and “Sorceress”), Christopher Johnstone (“Aeneas”), and Adam Rothschild (“Sailor”) – were excellent. Morris and the musicians were relegated to the pit, leaving the stage to the dancers. Although hidden from view, the musicians enriched the entire work, deepening the emotional experience of the dance. 

MMDG appears regularly in Fairfax, Virginia, although its home base is in Brooklyn, New York. Two of Morris’s dancers have DC-area roots. Rita Donahue, who was born and raised in Fairfax and who is an honors Dance graduate of George Mason University, was cast as the “Second Woman.” Elisa Clark, the “Second Witch,” obtained her early dance training at the Maryland Youth Ballet.

In the current version of “Dido and Aeneas,” Amber Darragh and Bradon McDonald take turns dancing the duel parts of Dido and the Sorceress. In Friday night’s performance, Darragh tackled the two characters admirably, showing passion and resilience in her alternate roles. As Dido, she was full of torment. As the Sorceress, she was fierce and conniving, possessed by her plan for Dido’s death. She shook her golden fingernails ominously.             

The set and costumes were appealingly simple, permitting one’s attention to be fully focused on the dance. Black tank tops and long black wrap-around skirts were worn by everyone but Aeneas, who stayed skirted but bare-chested throughout the production. On the stage, there was a low columned wall, with a longer, identical railed wall running the width of the back of the stage. The backdrop was a huge wrinkled greenish-blue canvas with some brown sections, looking like spots where paint had been peeled away. James F. Ingalls’s lighting made the dancers’ skin, especially their faces and shoulders, positively glow. 

Morris is known for his devotion to live music and also for the musicality of his choreography. The choreography was extraordinarily synchronous with the music’s ebbs and flows. As long notes were held, the movement slowed and the dancers breathed. The effect was one of incredible unity; the dancers and the music became part of the same whole. Particularly when several dancers were moving in unison, one could almost hear the music broadcast through their bodies.

“Dido and Aeneas” contains a number of recurring movements – a tittering step on one’s toes, deep pliés in wide second position, fisted hands, flex-footed jumps, and arms in sculptural poses reminiscent of ancient Greece. Some of the most amusing movement is that of the witches, who grasp hands and shudder as if passing a jolt of electricity among them. They act out their evil fantasies by mocking Dido’s anticipated death with crude gestures. The rousing dancing of the sailors is also entertaining. With skirts tied up to make humorous pantaloons, they skip and slap in gung ho fashion.

In the end, Dido surrenders to her fate. She paces backwards, trapped by the low, short wall that is pushed toward her. Finally, she falls forward, head and hair hanging down over the wall, where she remains still. The other dancers, in dirge-like steps, exit the stage, leaving only her sister Belinda beside her to mourn. 

By merging mythology, opera, and modern dance, Mark Morris has created a production that is both classical and contemporary. “Dido and Aeneas” incorporates magnificent music, dancing, and drama, making it a not-to-miss performance for anyone who appreciates good theater.

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