Dido and Aeneas

Mark Morris Dance Group

at the Shubert Theatre, April 16 and 17

By Laura Molzahn

Mark Morris has co-opted Western Civ. He’s subverted the Dead White Guys using one of them–Englishman Henry Purcell–and his classic early opera Dido and Aeneas. In his choreographed staging Morris plays the two female leads himself, and it doesn’t matter that men played the women’s roles in 1689–in our time it’s transgressive. Too bad the news about Morris is six years old: he first presented this work in 1989, when he was director of dance at Belgium’s Theatre Royal de la Monnaie. Thanks to Performing Arts Chicago, we finally saw it here.

Morris never lets us forget the classical, neoclassical, and imperial-istic underpinnings of Dido and Aeneas. Robert Bordo’s set pieces consist of an upstage balustrade and, downstage, a bench supported by classical columns. Nahum Tate’s libretto is based on Virgil’s Aeneiad, which traces the adventures of the god/man who “founded” Rome. English writers of the Restoration, 1660-1700, often fancied themselves the reincarnators of Rome’s Augustan period, Virgil’s period–an era of stability, for which Englishmen longed after 20 years of civil war. And it was at the end of this period that England began her empire building, defeating Holland’s navy and beginning a series of wars against the French that eventually won the British their colonies in the East and West. To late-17th-century Britons, Aeneas must have seemed the precursor of English greatness.

In the Aeneiad the hero’s affair with Dido is merely one episode of many that threaten to derail his fated founding of Rome. Virgil is sympathetic to Dido, but in his view she’s an unfortunate distraction, a strong woman brought shamefully low by her passions. As translator W.F. Jackson Knight (another Dead White Guy) says of the Dido episode in the introduction to his 1956 translation, “Virgil…introduces many examples of thoughtless excess leading to disaster, especially excesses of inordinate affection.” Tate’s libretto is somewhat different, downplaying Dido’s valiant self-destruction (Virgil reports that she stabbed herself on a pyre of Aeneas’s belongings) and underscoring her pride: Tatum’s Dido orders her lover away instead of begging him to remain, as Virgil’s does. And the libretto makes the message for Aeneas to leave Dido suspect: it comes not from the gods but from an evil sorceress.

Morris takes the opera’s pervasive sympathy for Dido to much greater lengths. For one thing, he makes Aeneas a real twit. The first figure we see is a heavily muscled man with a rope of hair down his back–Aeneas standing on the bench, towering over everyone else. But the rest of the piece is devoted to diminishing this “virile” image. When Aeneas makes love to Dido, one quick spasm does it. His movements when he laments leaving her are stiff and mechanical: he’s just going through the motions of remorse and longing. And in Morris’s staging, the cowardly Aeneas slips away not when Dido tells him she’ll kill herself unless he goes but after he hears her confess that “Death must come when he is gone.”

Morris as Dido is also noticeably larger than the man who plays Aeneas, Guillermo Resto. Though the costuming emphasizes the similarity of their looks, Morris is unmistakably taller and bulkier. His Dido also has a dignity and complexity Aeneas lacks. After they make love, she folds herself into complicated, almost tortured sculptural shapes in order to get as near as possible to him. But that sense of complication always characterizes Dido’s movements. As choreographer, Morris telegraphs Aeneas’ loss of interest in Dido long before the messenger arrives to summon him to his destiny: when Dido encircles his waist, he drops his arms; while he sits proud and independent, she leans back on his lap or curls around him.

Morris does not look like a woman and, except for gold-painted fingernails, has made no special effort to look like one. But he performs these “womanly” gestures of dependence and submission extremely well. Still, there’s something in his portrayal–as when he shimmies his shoulders to the vibrato of the mezzo-soprano singing Dido, Jennifer Lane–that smacks of the drag queen, the man determined to be more woman than any mere woman. That side of Morris’s Dido is fully expressed in the other female role he plays, that of the Sorceress who, jealous of Dido’s good fortune, sends a messenger posing as Mercury to order Aeneas on his way.

It seemed to me, rereading Virgil, that Purcell’s Sorceress resembles the evil goddess Rumour as well as Dido’s rejected suitor Iarbas, who’s jealous of Dido and Aeneas’ love and gets Jupiter to send Mercury with the fated message. At any rate, if ever there was a bitch goddess who loved to dish the dirt and rule supreme, it’s Morris’s Sorceress: twitching derisively, she ridicules the lovers with parodies of lust, holds court in her dark and droopy cave, even fluffs her hair a la Diana Ross. Morris’s overdone, melodramatic portrayal highlights the humor of this figure; but at the same time she’s an image of genuine power, especially at the end of the second scene. Here the Sorceress retreats behind some gathered-up curtains, but we can see her slow, controlled movements as she incites her followers into spasmodic dancing–she’s definitely the unmoved mover. Together Dido and the Sorceress represent a rough, dark power opposed to the might of men, nations, and gods.

What excited me about Morris’s choreography when I first saw it, in 1985 at MoMing, was its campy simultaneous parody and celebration of the music. When Morris danced, his little fillips made me laugh at the curlicues in the baroque music even as I enjoyed them more. Dido and Aeneas reveals the same dichotomy, but here the parody has been given mostly to the Sorceress, the straightforward celebration to Dido.

Musically I think Morris’s deeply campy sensibility is a joy, but when it informs the drama (as in his Nutcracker parody, The Hard Nut) I feel bored and left out: any attack he makes on the canon of Western Civ, imperialism, or the patriarchy is strictly in the name of gay men. Not women, despite Dido’s noble sister Belinda. We’ve got to take our champions where we find them, but at the risk of sounding narrow-minded, I have to say that I feel excluded by Morris’s vision, even offended on Dido’s behalf that he replaced her with a man. The days of imperialism may be over, as the world and its resources shrink and everyone fights for his or her slice of pie. But it seems the men are still hogging the good bits.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Brazil.