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Seeing Mark Morris dance the part of Dido and her alter ego The Sorceress at the Boston premiere of “Dido and Aeneas” in 1989 was one of those nights at the theatre I’ve never forgotten. What a fortuitous combination of Purcell’s music, exquisitely ordered but emotionally fraught, with Morris’ infectiously seductive, inventive and extremely contemporary choreography. But the “over the top” energy came from seeing Morris in his element, embodying the de-gendering of dance that he began at the beginning of his career. He was utterly arresting as Queen Dido. I never wanted the performance to come to an end.

On Wednesday we went to see the production again. In the 19 years between these performances, Morris has continued to go both horizontal and vertical in his choreographic explorations. His sensibilities about how movement and music come together have made him a legend throughout the world. This time he did not dance the part of the Queen but conducted the musicians and singers of Emmanuel Music.

Having the part of Dido and the Sorceress danced by a woman, Amber Darragh (who was stunning in both roles), shifted the theatrical experience of the piece. Much the way you can see 10 different productions of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and find yourself enchanted by each one, I was spellbound by this version as well. I agree with Thea Singer’s comments about how the casting change shifted the performance, offering up yet another moving envisioning of this story of heartbreak. (Singer’s review appeared in the Boston Globe and has been included at the bottom of this post.)

Ever since seeing the production on Wednesday night I have been thinking about artists who can build on an existing classical form–be it poetry, music or art–and crack open new and exciting territory. The ones that work are not simply revisions or retellings–new wine in old bottles–but an elixir with the fragrance of the familiar as well as something you can’t quite identify. The foundational respect for the original work is there but in perfect balance with what has been melded in. Morris climbs into Purcell’s music and alchemizes it with contemporary movement. It is a kind of evocation.

I asked similar questions about Richard Meier’s controversial museum in Rome, the Ara Pacis. It’s a worthy topic for further exploration, so more to come on these issues.

In the beginning – 1989, when it premiered – Mark Morris’s magnificent opera-cum-dance “Dido and Aeneas” was Mark Morris. The then-34-year-old not only choreographed its exquisitely interlocking gestures and stomps and bold architectonic traffic to Purcell’s 1689 opera, he also played two lead characters: Dido, the noble queen of Carthage, and the Sorceress, who’s bent on Dido’s undoing because the former is so much like herself.

He stopped dancing in the piece in 2000. No one, I thought, could take the place of Morris – big-boned and master of the shimmy, curly locks flying – in the dual role. But Wednesday night’s performance, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, proved that maybe no one has to.

Mark Morris is larger than life. With him at its core, “Dido and Aeneas” was, yes, the tragic love-and-loss story Purcell had derived from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” but it was also about him: Morris’s sexuality, Morris’s daring, Morris’s preoccupation with divining the two sides of a single coin: “one noble, one ignoble, version of the same truth,” as Joan Acocella put it in her 1993 biography of him.

Yet this rendition of “Dido” – with Amber Darragh in the dual role of Queen/Sorceress on Wednesday night – may suit Morris’s stylized, ritualistic choreography even better than the original. Darragh, too, is big boned, with curls asunder (though far more refined, on both counts, than Morris). She is regal as the Queen and deliciously naughty as the Sorceress. But in this production, both female leads have shrunk; they now fit neatly into the frame of the work as a whole. Morris has, as if casting a bas-relief in reverse, brought the chorus – 10 members of the Mark Morris Dance Group – to the fore.

Even though Morris has disappeared from the stage, he is still intrinsic to the performance. Here he takes over the role of conductor of the musicians, chorus, and vocal soloists of Emmanuel Music – all of them sunk in the orchestra pit while the dancers take center stage. At the start of the evening, both the dance and the music struck me as a bit tinny, lighter than I remembered them from the Morris-centric original. But as the work proceeded, either they gathered heft or I readjusted, absorbing Morris’s new vision.

With a libretto by Nahum Tate, Purcell’s opera follows Aeneas as he joins and then leaves Dido, with whom he’s smitten following the fall of Troy, when his ships wash ashore in Carthage. The Sorceress intervenes, sending a spirit to deliver a message purportedly from Jupiter hastening Aeneas on his way to Italy to found the Roman Empire. The message comes at a particularly inopportune moment: The pair have just made love (“one night enjoy’d,” chastely in the text; a single spasm in the dance), which Dido has taken as a vow of marriage. To her, even Aeneas’s thought of leaving is an ultimate betrayal. She dies from grief.

Morris’s “Dido and Aeneas” takes the tragedy and sculpts it – with angular friezes and two-dimensional posturing, hieroglyph arms and symbolic gesturing, some grafted from American Sign Language – into an emotionally gripping structure of fateful proportions. Its movements ache: Dido, her hands plastered vertically, fingertips to wrist, on her chest, shoots her legs open into a diamond. Often, among many players, a hand pushes up a torso, then exits, fingers splayed, as if spewed from the mouth. The movement, set in five scenes, is played out almost line for line to Purcell’s score. Even the 10 dancers in the chorus – be they courtiers, witches, spirits, or sailors – have distinct roles that correspond to the soprano, tenor, alto, or bass parts of the music.

It is that chorus, along with Dido’s sister, Belinda (the delicate Maile Okamura), that – even more than Dido – are the Everywoman of the “Dido” myth. They, taken together, are Everywoman betrayed, Everywoman abandoned by love. They are fate realized, with arms outstretched, wrists cocked, fingers archly splayed.

At the end of the drama, in a movement phrase that made me cry, Dido plucks at her palm, as if pulling an attenuated thread through cloth, then arcs backward. She delivers the echoing message: “Remember me! But ah! Forget my fate.” But it is the chorus, as its members exit somberly two by two through the slit in Robert Bordo’s beautiful blue Aegean Sea of a backdrop, who drive that message home: “With drooping wings ye Cupids come/And scatter roses on her tomb/Soft and gentle as her heart; Keep here your watch, and never part.”

Thea Singer
The Boston Globe