Doomed love affair makes 'irresistible' dance piece

Dancer Laurel Lynch as Dido.
Mark Morris choreographed his "Dido and Aeneas" so he could dance the roles of Dido and the Sorceress himself. While he has stepped back from dancing, the roles are still danced by one performer. Here, Laurel Lynch appears as Dido.
Courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group | Hilary Scott

Choreographer Mark Morris no longer dances in his company's show, "Dido and Aeneas," even though he wrote the piece for himself. But almost 30 years after the first performance, he'll still be quite visible when he brings "Dido" to the Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

The decision to do "Dido and Aeneas" came easily, Morris explained, particularly when he heard Henry Purcell's opera, composed in English in the 1680s.

"It's a great ... masterpiece," he said. "And it's a perfect length, and it's a great scale, and it's an irresistible story."

It's the hourlong tragic tale of a doomed love affair. Dido, queen of Carthage, falls for Aeneas, one of the few Trojans to survive the siege and destruction of Troy. He seems to return her love. Then a wicked sorceress casts a spell on him and tells him to desert the lovesick queen.

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"He leaves, and then she kills herself," said Morris. "She makes a funeral pyre of the possessions he left behind, and her sister Belinda watches her step into the pyre and immolate."

Choreographer Mark Morris
Choreographer Mark Morris
Courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group

Morris and his company have been at the forefront of dance for three decades, in the United States and in Europe. He was known first as a versatile dancer and choreographer. He later formed the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Morris developed "Dido and Aeneas" in the 1980s. He had just moved his company from New York to Brussels.

"Originally my idea, as vain as it might have been, was that I did the entire thing as a solo," he said. "So it was Dido and Aeneas and everybody else."

By "everybody else," he means a court full of retainers, an entire ship's crew and a coven of witches. In time he backed off that idea, settling on simply performing the parts of Dido and the sorceress. He added other dancers, and had singers perform from the orchestra pit, their head and shoulders just above the front of the stage.

The dancers perform in sarongs, switching from the staid, flat movement of the courtiers to the wild cavortings of the witches. Morris said the show works far better as a dance than as a straight opera performance because there is so much going on.

"The cast is 12, total," he said. "And the dancers switch gears very rapidly, which would be something that would be very difficult to do with a chorus of singers — to stage them and get them on and off and change personalities so much."

Dancers use gestures to adopt different personas.
Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group switch personas during the story of "Dido and Aeneas" simply by adopting different gestures. Here, they appear as members of Dido's royal court.
Courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group | Costas

While "Dido and Aeneas" floats on the Baroque sound of Purcell's opera, and the costumes are almost classical, the movements are of the present day. Morris said the choreography is carefully linked with the libretto.

"The story could be understood by, I think, people who are not even listening to it," Morris said. "Because visually it's very directly associated with the text at all times."

"Dido and Aeneas" has been a staple of the Mark Morris Dance Group since those first performances in the '80s. Morris no longer appears in the lead roles, but Dido and the Sorceress are still performed by one dancer.

And while Morris isn't right on stage, he's still in the middle of the show, conducting the orchestra.

"I was sweating bullets the first few times I was conducting," he admitted. "In fact, I still conduct barefoot because I over-perspire, because I get a little bit worked up."

Morris insists on live music for the show. Music, he says, makes the dance.

"To deprive an audience and a dancer of live music is a terrible, terrible disservice," he said. "And I think it ruins dance. In most occasions it ruins the dance."

Morris said he finds conducting thrilling, surrounded by dancers, musicians and singers. And after all, he said, someone has to give the downbeat.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect name for the Mark Morris Dance Group. The current version is correct.