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From Epic to Opera to Dance and Back: Mark Morris Dances Dido

In 1989 the choreographer Mark Morris created a dance for his company, the Monnaie Dance Group/Mark Morris, set to Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. The dance has remained in the repertoire of the company, now known as the Mark Morris Dance Group. In 1995 Barbara Willis Sweete created a film of the performance, and this is the text I will be reading for this paper. I should note that Sweete’s film is not intended to convey a straightforward ‘objective’ experience of the performance. The camera is rarely static, and Sweete is constantly making cinematic choices regarding camera placement and angle, when to zoom in and when to pull back. Morris choreographed the piece to be performed with live music. In Sweete’s film we see the singers only occasionally, usually at the very beginning of an aria or choral section with the dancers visible behind them. Props on the stage are minimal; there is a balustrade at the back and a long bench in the center.

As those familiar with Purcell’s opera know, his librettist Nahum Tate made changes to Dido’s story as told by Vergil. The most significant, perhaps, is the addition of the character of an evil Sorceress. The Sorceress hates Dido and Carthage and plots the destruction of both. She sends her “trusty elf” disguised as Mercury to tell Aeneas he must leave, knowing that his departure will bring about the death of Dido. In Morris’s version the Sorceress and Dido are sung by the same person, an unusual decision given that Purcell wrote the parts for two different voice types. Most astonishingly, both parts are danced by Morris himself.

Morris’s Dido is an androgynous figure in the sense that he is not attempting to ‘disguise’ himself as a woman. Although his hair is long and worn in a feminine style and his fingernails are long and painted, he has not given himself womanly breasts, and his sleeveless costume reveals decidedly masculine (i.e., hairy) axillae. (In fact, Aeneas also has painted nails and long hair, but his costume is topless and he wears a beard, so he appears much less androgynous than Dido.) Indeed, when I have shown students clips from the film, Morris’s mixing up of stereotypical gender traits invariably prompts uneasy laughter when he first appears. And yet the seriousness of the story and the hauntingly beautiful music of Purcell make it impossible to respond to Morris’s performance as sheer camp. Joan Acocella notes in her biography of Morris that early critics complained about what she describes as “a kind of double-sidedness that is absolutely fundamental to his vision, an ability to see and express two opposing aspects of an experience simultaneously. Often those two aspects are the solemn and the ridiculous . . . ” (Acocella 1993.65).

In this paper I will explore an intertextual reading of Morris’s Dido (which will necessarily include Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) that pairs this “double-sided” quality—primarily in terms of gender play but also as a quality that characterizes the entire piece—with the ambivalence surrounding Dido when we contextualize her role in the Aeneid as a whole. Vergil’s Dido is a sympathetic and tragic heroine, yet she constitutes a dangerous impediment to the mission Aeneas must fulfill. Dido is queen of Carthage, Rome’s former enemy. Furthermore she cannot be disassociated from that other powerful African queen who was seen by many Romans as the most dangerous woman of Vergil’s time: Cleopatra. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas minimizes Aeneas’s point of view (see Burden 1998.227) and thus inevitably minimizes some of the complexity of Vergil’s Dido. Morris’s interpretation introduces a very different kind of complexity. However it is a complexity that when deconstructed, turns out to be Vergilian in numerous ways. Both Vergil and Morris give us a Dido who challenges us as she breaks our hearts.