originally published in

In Conversation

Dido and Aeneas, choreographed by Mark Morris in 1989 to the Purcell opera of 1689, takes place in an entirely self-contained world—except for the golden light designer James F. Ingalls sends streaming in from off stage, like the sun setting over the Aegean. The simplicity of the set (benches), the backdrop (a turquoise and ocher painting of map of the Mediterranean by the artist Robert Bordo), and the costumes (Christine Van Loon’s simple black sarongs and sleeveless shells) establishes an archaic feeling, neither baroque nor modern. Timeless, yet distant.
Mark Morris                  Photo: Amber Star Merkens
In this setting, Morris danced both Dido and the Sorceress, two profoundly contrasting roles (some see them as flip sides of the same character), just as ballerinas often danced both White Swan and Black Swan in Swan Lake. He was a marvel of interiority and compression as Dido, and exteriority and expansion as the Sorceress. He had considered also taking a third role, though this would have been complicated: He would have been playing both Dido and Aeneas, and he would have had to make love to himself.
In 2006, he handed off his roles to two of his dancers. Amber Star Merkens became the Sovereign Queen of Carthage, and Bradon McDonald a fantastically debauched and profane sorceress. This was a terrifying moment for ardent admirers of the original. Morris had danced the dual roles for 11 years. He was Dido. He was the Sorceress. And then he wasn’t, and yet, the dance—which frankly, one never wanted to see any other way—was still wonderful. This was the one run for which Morris divided his roles between a man and a woman. Later, McDonald played both, and now Merkens will.
When Guillermo Resto played Aeneas to Morris’s Dido, he was entirely believable as the son of Venus and a recent hero of the Trojan War. With his long dreadlocks gathered at the nape of the neck, his dark good looks and rugged ways, his strong stance, his sarong dangerously ready to part at any instant, he was the King of Testosterone. You perfectly understood why Dido fell for him. I thought he fell for her too, only departing Carthage to found Rome because fate—and history—cruelly summoned him.
Recently, during a conversation in his bright green office at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn—it has everything but parrots, and there could be a stuffed one I didn’t notice in the razzle-dazzle, bazaar-like atmosphere­—Morris disabused me of this romantic notion. Sporting a post-rehearsal swathe of cloth of an exotic origin draped over his polo shirt and shorts, and Christopher Robin sandals and socks, he heartlessly told me that Aeneas is a brute. A cad! That it was all about sex! Without sentiment, he considered his current occupation during Dido. He’s now in the pit, leading “the band.” This is nothing new: He has been conducting since that same BAM season when he handed over Dido and the Sorceress. On March 8 of that year, he stepped onto the podium, raised his baton, and laid down the music for his dance called Gloria like laying down a floor: a secure ground for the dancers, at whom he barely glanced. (He trusts his company, after all. He rehearses them.) Surprisingly, he is not a dancey conductor, as was, to choose the most obvious example, Leonard Bernstein. (Watch him conduct the West Side Story studio sessions on Youtube. He’s sensational.) For Morris, dancing is dancing, and conducting is conducting.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): What has the reaction been to your conducting?
Mark Morris: Some people think it’s a publicity stunt, which it’s not, or ask what makes me qualified. Conducting isn’t giving a music lesson. I’m not teaching people to play their instruments. We were bringing Gloria back and Nancy [Umanoff, the executive director of the Mark Morris Dance Group] suggested that to renew my interest in my piece, why not conduct it? So I did. I always have been responsible for the music incorporated in my shows. It’s not enough to have good music; you have to have good players and it has to work within the context of my shows. 1996 was the year I made my live music vow. I work with stars and I work with fabulous musicians who aren’t stars. I know what I am doing and so I conduct. I have had coaching. I have very good teachers—and I’ve had very good, smart people ask me why don’t I conduct my work. Dido was the second thing I conducted. I’m adding Jesu, Meine Freude and A Lake.
Rail: Have you been influenced by any conductors of the past—Bernstein, Stokowski…?
Morris: No, I don’t think that way. But one of the conductors who strongly instructed me to conduct my own work was Maestro [James] Levine, who conducted the Orfeo I did. It isn’t just me—but I am the one who has the final say and the final touch to get the music and the dance linked. The Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble is a core of a small number of players who can swing in and out of a string quartet or solo piano up to a full orchestra. A roster. We travel with our band. (If it’s a full orchestra we use local musicians.) I approve everything.
Rail: Does conducting feel like performing?
Morris: No. It doesn’t. You’re facing the other way, for one thing. You have to be alert and energetic, but you’re the only person who’s not performing. It’s nervous making. I get very agitated. It’s wonderful. Exciting. Fun. Difficult. Lay the beat down—secure and true. There’s no mystery except it’s always different. You’re always a little ahead. By the time you hear music, it’s moved on. If you start listening you automatically slow it down. It can’t be just mechanical, or why would you need live music? My dancers know the music inside out, which most dancers don’t because they are not required to.
Rail: What do you love most about Dido and Aeneas?
Morris: I don’t know, I can’t say that. [Pauses] It’s very very good. It happens so rapidly and efficiently. It’s a beautifully designed piece.
Rail: Is it a love story?
Morris: It’s a tragedy. (That can be a love story.) The most important aspect is that it’s a tragedy. Because he’s not in love with her.
Rail: He’s not in love with her?
Morris: He’s never in love with her. He’s just a man. He has other things. It’s a convenience thing. He has sex with her. Aeneas never sings with the orchestra. He only sings with continuo, harpsichord, and cello. He doesn’t have an aria. He doesn’t get a tune. He gets a soliloquy when he’s summoned to Rome.
Rail: Is he torn when he has to leave?
Morris: He’s not torn. No. Uh-uh. Calling something a love story is a terrible idea because it makes it stupid. It makes it a chick flick. It makes it a Disney movie.
Rail: Does love make you stupid?
Morris: I don’t want to talk about that—does love make you stupid. I don’t want to analyze my own work. When you pose an idea, it puts me in a corner I don’t like, because I don’t want to decide what people get from it. I have feelings about it, but I am not going to tell you the secrets of it even though I have eyes and ears. “Is it a love story?” is getting too specific—but it’s a love story. There’s love in it. If one knew the story and was interested, one could find a whole lot of details.
Rail: I feel as if you made it just for me.
Morris: Good. A lot of people feel like that, and they’re right.

©Nancy Dalva 2012