Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Mark meant; or, Dido and Aeneas 20 years on

It was almost twenty years ago that I saw Mark Morris perform the role of Dido in Dido and Aeneas, in the Cutler Majestic, opposite the great Guillermo Resto (at left). Craig Smith was in the pit, conducting Emmanuel Music, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson sang the role of Dido. It was the American premiere, and one of the dozen or so evenings of my life that I will never forget (that's probably true of a number of people there).

Now, of course, both Lorraine and Craig are gone, and Morris is no longer dancing; instead he took Smith's place in the pit at the recent Boston performances (and acquitted himself quite well, as we knew he would). And Dido went on without him (at least onstage), and without Craig, or Lorraine, or Guillermo (who has also left dancing), or actually any of the dancers in that first premiere. If that sounds mournful, well, it is; I think it's hard for many younger Bostonians to appreciate quite what the emergence of Mark Morris in Boston and Berkeley meant at the time, and how the now-departed stars of the Boston music scene contributed to bringing it about. Mark was the big news in dance, and after a controversial period in New York, and rejection by Belgium, his reputation was cemented by us. It was one of the Boston community's single greatest artistic contributions of the last few decades, and it was a thrilling time to be thinking about dance critically - it was one of those moments when new art appears in a form which one can tell in one's gut has an air of greatness about it, but which is still mysterious, which has yet to be explicated.

Not that you'd realize any of this from the local print response to Morris; Boston embraced him, but some local critics did not. Over at the Phoenix, for instance, Jeffrey Gantz is still pretending the revolution didn't happen. "Was it meant to be camp?" Gantz wonders cluelessly of Dido, which, like almost all of Morris, slips easily from tragedy to irony and back. Of course to be fair, Gantz was always hampered in his appreciation of Mark by what appears to be homophobia; he just can't see how dance could be about something other than skinny sylphs being partnered by studs in dance belts, and the cross-dressing in Dido still has him in a tizzy. Indeed, he actually writes: "when [Dido is played by] a man, this Dido and Aeneas represents the attempt of homosexual love to break free of external disapproval and internal guilt." I'm trying hard not to laugh as I read that, but I'm afraid I'm failing. Really, what a maroon. You'd think this was 1969 and Mark had choreographed The Boys in the Band. Earth to Jeffrey: Mark Morris, and gay men in general, are no longer plagued by "internal guilt," and even "external disapproval" is dying a rapid death. Indeed, Mark's famous turn as Dido wasn't so much revolutionary as a confident announcement that the revolution was over. He was a gay man crossing gender lines to play a woman in a company marked by general diversity of shape, race and size, for a dance audience for whom this was no longer a big deal. (Needless to say, Gantz doesn't like dancers of normal weights either, and even approvingly quotes James Woolcott's notorious putdown of Joan Acocella and Mark, "Joanie Loves Chunky" - need I point out that Woolcott himself is morbidly obese?)

Amber Darragh and Craig Biedsecker as Dido and Aeneas.

Okay, claws in. As I said before, time marches on; and even if Dido and Aeneas proves timeless, right now it's on the "cusp" of timelessness, when it must break free of its original cast (and political cast). These days, the double role of Dido and her nemesis is played by either a man or a woman, on alternating nights (Amber Darragh, above and Bradon McDonald, below). I saw Bradon, not Amber, in the Boston performances, so I can only vouch for the latest model of the "drag" take on Dido - and already, inevitably, there's a distinct difference in the piece because of Morris's and McDonald's differing personae. Where Mark was tragic in a larger than life way -and made almost a brassy Sorcereress - McDonald is delicate and more internal, and his Sorceress is more tormented and perverse. McDonald's presence draws the piece away from its original classical stance (indeed, much of its initial appeal was its demonstration that diversity and classicism could dance hand-in-hand), and further down the twisting road of psychoanalysis (always implicit in the doubled central role). As a result, the most resonant moment in the dance is now the chorus's lament "Great minds against themselves conspire," as Dido descends toward her self-destruction.

Dido and Aeneas, of course, is about more than merely Dido - indeed, in formal terms it's a handy guide to the tropes and quirks of Mark Morris, especially the tropes and quirks that drive people like Gantz crazy. Sometimes, when I'm watching Dido, I ponder whether this is something close to the synthesis of dance and theatre practiced by the ancient Greeks - not only does Mark swing confidently between individual and choral movement, but he's far less interested in the modernist abstraction than he is in straightforward communication, both of dramatic story and musical structure. Thus he usually choreographs directly to the beat (rather than dancing around it, like Balanchine), and his movement edges toward mime, as well as an intriguing kind of symbolic gesture that's really his own. Often in Morris, one senses a deployment of abstract gesticulation that has been organized according to the musical variation of the piece (in Grand Duo, for instance, the dancers move from what appears to be a gesture for "agriculture" toward one that might indicate "industrialization" or "information"). In Dido, there's not only this pure symbolism, but also chunks of American Sign Language worked directly into the choreography (as when Dido signs her desire to "forget" Aeneas). This, of course, is another nod toward cultural inclusion, but it's also an intriguing intellectual statement - this is dance that is literally communication.

Needless to say, this leaves the erotic spine of both romantic and modernist dance far behind, and perhaps that's what Mark's critics can't really get their heads around. But of course to many of us, that's what make him special - that great ideas and feelings can be communicated in dance sans the sexual structure of ballet, but instead through what amounts to a kind of apotheosis of folk dance, or shared experience (there's always an overwhelming sense of community in Mark's great dances, particularly in their sudden bursts of joy). Thus some longtime Mark fans worry that his newer dancers aren't as diverse in size and shape as they used to be - and indeed, they are getting a bit more homogenously thin and muscled. Of course they're also getting more technically adept - that's the trade-off, I suppose, that Gantz and his ilk might pounce on. But can't they at least see that it is, in the end, a trade-off, and that a certain disinterest in technical extremity - like his disinterest in sexual conformity - is, in a way, what Mark Morris means?

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