Mark Morris's 'Dido': Invigorated Virgil

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

Mark Morris's "Dido and Aeneas" is that remarkable rarity: a work of modern art that looks as though it has come down to us through the ages.

It tells a story out of Virgil's "Aeneid" with the immediacy and emotional punch of a folk tale. It slips into a comfortable stride with its music -- Henry Purcell's 17th-century opera of the same name -- as naturally as if the two had been created together. But one surely could watch the dancing in silence and still be moved by it, for the emotional drive, the characterizations, the great conflicts and personal reckoning are all there in large, vivid form.

Some details hark to ancient times: On occasion the dancers adopt a torqued stance, with the head in profile while the shoulders are squared to the front, and they wear the kind of knotted-bath-towel skirts you see etched on Phoenician wine jugs. But in its simplicity and directness, Morris's "Dido" is undatable, at once new and old and eternal.

George Mason University was the fortunate host of the hour-long work this past weekend, the fruit of the university's long and rewarding commitment to the Mark Morris Dance Group. "Dido" was last seen in this area 15 years ago, at the Kennedy Center, but the university's Center for the Arts is a better frame. Its stage is perfectly proportioned for what is essentially an intimate window on the legendary saga of Dido, queen of Carthage, who reluctantly falls in love with Trojan War hero Aeneas, only to run afoul of a Sorceress who sends Aeneas away, leaving a rueful Dido to kill herself.

It might sound like the dry stuff of your Western civilization class, but this piece is as full of juice as a ripe plum. It fairly bursts with wit, genuine feeling and kinetic zing because Morris created it as a showcase for himself: He originally danced the roles of Dido and the Sorceress. This was back in 1989, when, after a string of successes here had given it an international profile, Morris's troupe was busy being the national dance company of Belgium.

I saw Morris in the dual turn here back in 1992: A tall, commanding but exquisitely sensitive dancer, he was superb then as the two women, proud and earthy and warmhearted as the queen, grandiose yet deeply human as the Sorceress. How could another dancer take on that mantle? Wonderfully well, it turns out. At Friday's performance, Amber Darragh presented the two like facets of a single soul. Both were swept by strong passions; the difference is that the Sorceress gives full vent to her appetites, while Dido, the more Apollonian monarch, wrestles with them, only slowly coming to terms with her feelings -- and then is devastated by them.

Darragh, a lanky, broad-shouldered dancer, brought out the somewhat androgynous look of the two roles but also Dido's powerful sensuality. When Aeneas -- Craig Biesecker --reaches knowingly for her hand at one point, gleam in his eye, she looks at him as if she can already taste the fun. But in contrast to Darragh's expansive presence, the slightly built, affable Biesecker seemed deliberately less sympathetic; uncomplicated, chasing after one prize (Dido), then another (his destiny to found Rome), like a pup after a ball.

Morris did not dance, but he took on a big role nonetheless: He conducted the excellent Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and the George Mason University Singers. Yet another reason why this performance drove forward with such energy -- Morris luxuriated in the dance rhythms of Purcell's score, and underscored the pathos at the end, where the singer voicing the role of Dido pleads: Remember me, but forget my fate. Who among us wouldn't wish the same, that the fullness of our lives endure, but not our sins and tragedies?

To illustrate that plea, Darragh placed the fingertips of one hand against the palm of the other; they pull out an imaginary lifeline, extending it slowly upward, then far, far back, as if toward those who will follow her. It is an incandescent expression of Dido's strength of will, and of her longing, and it crystallized the grace, clarity and musical fluency of an extraordinary production.

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