Interview: Mark Morris picks up the baton
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 19, 2008


Next week, the Celebrity Series of Boston brings back Mark Morris’s dance setting of Henry Purcell’s 17th-century English opera Dido and Aeneas. Many Morris admirers regard it as his greatest work. He originally danced two of the major roles: Dido, Queen of Carthage, who falls in love with the Trojan prince Aeneas and kills herself when he abandons her; and Dido’s nemesis, the evil Sorceress. Now a different dancer plays both roles on alternate nights. And Morris himself will lead the Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music, the first time he’s conducted in Boston.

After you stopped dancing in Dido and Aeneas, you had a revival in which Amber Darragh danced Dido and Bradon McDonald danced the Sorceress. Now each of them is doing both roles in the same performance. why do you think it’s necessary that one dancer play both roles?
It makes more sense. When they split the roles, I wasn’t sure if either of them could pull it off. But they more than proved they were each capable of doing the whole piece. It’s better for continuity — it’s over in a second. I like that whirling activity of one person getting worn out by the end of it.

How important do you regard the gender of the dancer in these roles?
It doesn’t matter to me. It has to do with who is great at it. I choreographed Dido on a woman and the Sorceress on a man. The poor things never got to do it. I learned the parts from that, me looking at it and deciding what should happen.

Many critics call you dance’s most musical choreographer. What do you think they mean by that? In what ways do you think of yourself as musical?
Musical is a trick question. I’m not sure what it means. It used to be a secret code for homosexual, and I’m proud to claim that. That term is used both to damn and to praise. I like to think it’s because I have great taste in music and a great sense of music. My choreography is always considering the structure and flow of the music. That’s what I hope it means. I have no problem with gorgeous dances to gorgeous music. People say I’m “slavish” to music. I told a critic years ago to look at a dance as if it were from a culture with which he was unfamiliar. Then you’re not so horrified by the fact that we sometimes dance to the beat. We work really really hard to master the techniques of rhythms, line, flow. It’s what the music tells us to do. I don’t expect other choreographers to do what I do. Good dances don’t have to resemble what I do.

Is there a connection for you between choreography and conducting?
Probably. I ended up conducting at the very strong encouragement of [the late Emmanuel Music director] Craig Smith. To see if I could do it when I conducted Gloria. It was hard, but edifying. Craig convinced me that I know what I need from the music of my dances better than other people do. Corporeally anticipating how the music should go — the swing of it, the time of it. By the time you hear something, it’s too late to dance to it. I have to “train” all the conductors I work with anyway with for the needs of my choreography. I’m always adjusting accents and tempi. It’s something I have, something that’s been part of my life and career for ever.

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