Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
September 16, 2011
The opening of Cal Performances' new season is a highly anticipated event in the Bay Area as patrons ready themselves for an exciting year of world class artists. This past weekend kicked-off the dance series with Mark Morris Dance Group's "Dido and Aeneas". The tragic opera was transformed into an artistic collaboration with dancers and musicians performing each role accompanied by the superb Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, all conducted under the musical and artistic direction of Mark Morris.
The choreography of "Dido and Aeneas" was a perfect embodiment of the Greek style with precise, deliberate sequences that were specific in their positioning and their intent. Everything was perfectly placed and placed for a reason and a purpose, nothing blurry or wishy-washy. This allowed the events to be clearly conveyed and reminds us why codified, position-based modern dance was so successful for so long.
The intention of this dance-theater piece was to relate the epic tale of "Dido and Aeneas" through physical language, and Morris fully accomplished this goal: the chosen narrative was clearly transmitted. But the work was and is so much more than a simple gestural representation; he was able to inject the choreography with its own contributions and lessons without compromising the guiding storyline. The choreographic standout was Morris' treatment of the 'small' and how intricate details truly have the most unexpected meaning. The opening sequence found the cast propelling themselves around the stage with fast parallel boureés, and later in the work a similar small movement (this time, heel twists) was utilized to cover the vast space. Here we saw the transitions from one place to another; the starting and ending point were of course integral, but the in between, the journey is where the magic happened. Domingo Estrada Jr. as Aeneas had a strong, powerful and commanding presence, though the most telling part of his solo occurred as he turned his palms to face up and out. This seemingly insignificant motion said everything - he was opening up his heart and giving his soul away. Morris' ongoing theme of how small changes drastically affect one's existence was brilliant.
Though the majority of the piece was fantastic, some of the characters were a bit confusing. The recurring 'chorus' were a delight to watch: their choreography interesting and dynamic and their performance flawless. With this group of dancers, it seemed that Morris was trying to create a system where gender was left out of the equation: their androgyny was palpable. Unfortunately, with a story like "Dido and Aeneas", the gender-bending doesn't and didn't really work; it just looked campy. And while campy can be a valid, interesting and entertaining performance choice, in this case, the 'camp' just wasn't very good. Similarly, Amber Star Merkens' interpretation of Dido was choreographically masterful but relationally unconvincing. She didn't display any spark, desire or chemistry for Estrada's Aeneas, making it difficult to buy into their connection.