Mark Morris Dance Group sets contemporary gender issues against classical backdrop

Kevin Foote/Staff
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs their rendition of the tale "Dido and Aeneas" at Zellerbach Hall.

Like the two-dimensional figures painted on a Grecian urn, Mark Morris Dance Group contorted their bodies into fierce angles last weekend; the stage lost its depth and gained the boldness of an urn’s lines and shattered shapes. Ancient themes punctuated the space the way purposefully painted motifs mark a piece of pottery. In MMDG’s rendition of the tale “Dido and Aeneas,” presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, antiquated influence is cobbled together with wholly contemporary presentation.

MMDG’s “Dido and Aeneas” defies definitions of any one period or style of dance and instead embraces a fair few, resulting in a piece that is timeless and culturally transcendent. In addition to references to Grecian myth, Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera adds English Baroque distinction. One such influence frames dancer Lauren Grant as a jolly sailor dancing a bit of a reel in a moment of comic relief, recalling Irish step-dance and the cross-cultural interaction between England and Ireland.

At times the layers of allusions became overwhelming. Where clear balletic storytelling would have been effective, some of the choreography was excessively abstracted to the point of being inaccessible. At points, it created fragmented visuals that, by the end, left plot puzzles yet to be solved. The performance became a stimulating opportunity to unwind the knot of cultural nods.

The performance portrays the fate of Aeneas (Domingo Estrada, Jr.) as he sets off to found Rome but instead falls in love with Dido, Queen of Carthage. During more serious moments, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe’s voice soars robustly, complementing Dido’s agile, martial character. The dancer Amber Star Merkens’ movements as Dido are powerful, but the musical elements make them naturally extraordinary.

The production welcomed Mark Morris as conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. An artist in the truest sense of the word, Morris has had his hands in the clay of his project since its beginning; he originally danced the title role of Dido during the production’s Belgium premier. For the performance’s Berkeley appearance, Merkens took the lead.

Given her command and intensity, Merkens revolutionizes how Dido’s character is presented. She positively triumphs, carefully treating the traditionally feminine character as one that is fluid between gender roles and extreme. Instead of melting into a plie, she sinks into harsh 90-degree angles on her haunches — not ladylike at all. Merkins brings a particularly lusty nature to Dido, apparently driven by a fetish for bloodshed: Dido sits with her back to the audience, eagerly enjoying the company before her as they act out scenes of couples intimately embracing. When they ought to kiss, one member of the party instead stabs his or her lover in the back, prompting Dido to gleefully applaud. The last couple slumps to the ground as lovers turned traitors and Dido falls with them.

Her back arches high as the wild curls on her head shake against the floor and her golden-clawed fingers quiver between her legs. Orgasm sparks the intersection between her feminine and masculine selves and suddenly resolves the warring tension between them. Satisfying physical yearning allows her to temporarily abandon previously martial momentum and slink away with a feminine sway.

Combining modern notions of gender with historical iconography, MMDG’s contemporary “Dido and Aeneas” embodies a legacy of constantly evolving Western cultures.