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Mark Morris Dance Group's
"Four Saints in Three Acts" and "Dido and Aeneas"
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, September 23, 2000

by Karen Drozda

For those who did not read any of the advance publicity, the program presented several unexpected twists and turns, enlivened by the characteristic humor and impeccable technique of Morris and his dancers.

Featured was a double billing of Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts, and Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Both pieces were accompanied by members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Craig Smith, and the American Back Soloists. It was great having live dance, live music, and live voices all in the same performance. Much of Morris' work is inspired by early music. The connection between dance and music is acknowledged by Morris who says, "I'd rather be a singer than a dancer, but as a dancer I'm a pretty good singer."

The plot in both pieces is surprisingly difficult to follow. The fact that they are based on a play and an opera, both accompanied by libretto in the program, is misleading. In reality, neither piece had clear narrative properties; the first a result of Stein's artistic intent, and the second a matter of Morris' interpretation.

Stein wrote her libretto in 1927 in Paris, where it was set to music by Thompson a year later. In her production notes for Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein wrote "A saint a real saint never does anything, a really good martyr does something but a really good saint does nothing, and so I wanted to have Four Saints who did nothing and that was everything. Generally speaking anybody is more interesting doing nothing than doing something."

The plot involves a fanciful meeting, marriage and ascent to heaven by sixteenth century Spanish saints Theresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola. The words in the libretto mean both more and less than they appear to mean. At one point Saint Ignatius has a vision of the Holy Spirit and says the most famous line of the play "Pigeons on the grass alas." At the same time John Heginbotham as Saint Ignatius performs a wonderful series of semi-absurd movements, with an innocence and a joy that expresses the soul of the entire piece.

Michele Yard as Saint Theresa plays her role with childlike naivete, moving about the stage in a white baby-doll nightie with bouncy jumps and runs. The chorus of lesser saints is dressed in ruffled Spanish skirts and mantillas, or toreador pants. They provide a backdrop of normalcy, performing mundane tasks going about daily life while the two main saints run around blessing everybody. The entire effect is one of happy, vacuous absurdity, danced with great beauty and precision.

The colorful sets reflect the carefree innocence and childlike mood, with brightly lit and colored backdrops. Crudely depicted blackbirds fly across a tangerine sky. Trees and flowers are naively rendered on a bright turquoise blue ground.

The second piece, Dido and Aeneas, is set to Henry Purcell's 1689 operatic score which tells the tragic love story of Virgil's Aeneid Trojan War hero and the passionate Queen of Carthage. It was first staged by Mark Morris in 1989, during the company's residence at Brussels' Theatre Royal de la Monnaie.

Dido and Aeneas was visually more severe yet shared the same sense of tongue-in-cheek humor and playful exaggeration. The backdrops are all black, and almost all the dancers (men and women alike) are dressed in black leotards and ankle length black sarongs. Mark Morris' Dido and Guillermo Resto's Aeneas appear to be two sides of the same coin, both heavy-set well-muscled males with long flowing hair. Queen Dido's pale complexion and graceful gestures contrast the tanned naked torso and stolid movements of her consort.

Morris plays Queen Dido with monumental grandeur and touching emotion. Casting male dancers in female roles, and vice versa, is both a modern conceit and a reference to the time in history when all roles were played by male actors.

Even someone familiar with the story line might have had trouble following the plot. Morris plays both Queen Dido and The Sorceress, with the only costume change being a hair clip. The false Mercury wears black shorts instead of a sarong. Aeneas has a bare torso. The rest of the dancers are dressed alike, so that courtier and Trojan warrier, male and female roles are difficult to separate.

The starkness of costume and scenery accentuate the richness of the choreography, the beauty of the music, the expressive technique of the dancers, and the flawless synergy of the three. Morris' pieces are thoughtful, controversial, and most importantly of all, well danced.

 

Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.


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