I was ready to be a little disappointed when I arrived at the Harris Theater for the Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance of Dido and Aeneas last night.
I knew that Morris himself had danced the piece’s twin lead roles of Dido and the Sorceress at its premiere in 1989 and numerous times since, but had never seen it. And now that he wasn’t taking the role himself anymore, I knew he had cast it with a woman.
That sounded like it would be less interesting.
I needn’t have worried.
There’s nothing uninteresting about Laurel Lynch, who has both lead parts. Statuesque and fluidly expressive, she’s a compelling stage presence—whether as Dido, the angular and elegant Queen of Carthage, or her jittery antithesis, the evil Sorceress. And, if you have a taste for Baroque music, this genre-blending mash-up is a multisensory treat.
Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas is the anchor for Morris’s choreography. It’s the story of the tragic mythical love affair between Dido and the Trojan, Aeneas, who washed up on her shore. They’re smitten with each other, but Aeneas is destined to sail on to Italy and become the first hero of Rome. The destructive Sorceress can’t abide their happiness; she sees to it that Aeneas gets his orders to move on. Aeneas is tempted to defy the gods and stay with Dido, but she won’t have it. It doesn’t end well—but, you know, you can’t fight the gods.
The Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble—consisting of chamber orchestra and chorus—and their guest soloists are all positioned in the orchestra pit, while the dancers perform the story onstage. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck sings the Dido/Sorceress roles; bass-baritone Douglas Williams is the voice of Aeneas, while Domingo Estrada Jr. dances the role; and silvery soprano Sherezade Panthaki sings the part of Dido’s sister, engagingly danced by Michelle Yard.
Morris’s yin and yang choreography has Dido and her courtiers moving like figures that just stepped off a classical Grecian vase—formal, angular, and orderly—while the Sorceress and her coven of witches stumble blindly about, bouncing off each other in jiggles and orgiastic chaos. Costumes and sets are minimal: everyone wears a draped black skirt; the backdrop looks like a painted sheet.
The AIDS crisis was in full swing when this work had its premiere in 1989, and it had a profound resonance specific to that time. Now Morris conducts the orchestra and singers in the pit, and the piece plays as a broader exploration of desire and destiny.
Tuesday’s gala performance—followed in the lower lobby by an after-party with champagne, sweets, and a DJ—marked the unveiling of recent renovations at the Harris, aimed at correcting issues that have plagued the venue since its opening in 2003. There are new railings along the notorious stairways in the auditorium, a tall bump-out in the lower lobby, and two more elevators. And, to accommodate those elevators, they’ve torn the staircases out and reversed their direction—they now zig where they once zagged.
There’s one more performance of Dido and Aeneas at the Harris Theater, tonight at 7:30 PM.
Dido & Aeneas, Wed 5/6, 7:30 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, 312-334-7777, harristheaterchicago.org, $35-$125.