Altar and ego

Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2009

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MIRROR IMAGES? Amber Darragh and Craig Biesecker are at their best when they’re dancing with each other .
Boston saw the second-ever set of performances of Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas, in June 1989 (it had premiered in Brussels in March), but apart from a one-afternoon stand in September 1995, the work hasn’t been back. It’s one of his most celebrated pieces: Anna Kisselgoff gave it a mostly favorable review in the New York Times; Thea Singer and Lloyd Schwartz were both enchanted in their 1989 side-by-side Phoenix reviews of the Mark Morris group’s dancing and Emmanuel Music’s performance of Henry Purcell’s circa 1689 opera (with, opening night, no less than the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido); and even Laura Jacobs in her New Criterion essay “Bubble Boy” — which takes Mark to task for his more recent efforts — admits to liking the work. I don’t recall whether I saw Dido in 1989 or 1995 or both, but I do remember that I thought it a clunky, tedious, heavy-breathing embodiment of Purcell that exacerbated Baroque opera’s tendency to preen and posture — not to mention moralize. Or was it meant to be camp? At least a decade later, and perhaps a little wiser, I visited the Image Entertainment DVD (which was shot in 1995) in the hope of an more enlightened reaction. All I got was a flashback to James Wolcott’s infamous 2007 Vanity Fair blog “Joanie Loves Chunky,” in which he talks of watching the New Yorker’s “Joan Acocella skipping with Mark Morris across the verdant green with a rose between her teeth as he popped himself open another can of beer.”

Dido and Aeneas is back this week for five performances (three of them remaining: tonight and tomorrow at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm) at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and Morris, who had always danced two of the work’s lead roles, Dido and the Sorceress, has moved from the stage into the pit, where he’s conducting Emmanuel Music. (These performances are dedicated to Emmanuel Music founder Craig Smith, who died last year; he had led the Brussels premiere and the subsequent Boston dates.) For a time Morris was dividing his former roles: Amber Darragh would do Dido and Bradon McDonald the Sorceress one evening, and then they’d reverse the casting the next night. Now he again has one dancer doing both roles in the same performance, the way a single ballerina does Odette and Odile in SwanLake. Darragh danced Wednesday and last night; McDonald will do the weekend performances.

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