Embodying Music

by Martha Sherman

Mark Morris’ identity as an artist is inseparable from the music. Not only does he make dances, he conducts their scores, and “Mark Morris: Two Operas, An evening of Britten and Purcell” was a personification of this artistic Janus. Each work profited from his devotion to both opera and dance, but in opposing ways. Morris highlighted the music in his New York premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “Curlew River” and focused on the dance in his 1989 classic, Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” In both cases, though, the partner art was rendered with beautiful attention. The singers of the Britten chorus were given choreography in simple, effective movement. The gorgeous singing for Purcell’s opera was only secondary in attention because the singers were in the orchestra pit, while the dancers took the stage. The singers were still lit and visible along with the musicians; these were full partners, not servants, in the performance.

“Curlew River,” is subtitled “A Parable for Church Performance,” and is the operatic telling of a story based on the Japanese Noh play “Sumidagawa”: A mother makes a pilgrimage with a boatman and traveler to find and mourn her lost son. The simplicity of the staging and costumes – all in white – felt both church-like and Japanese. Large, dripping curtains fell from backstage, softly shifting the bright light. A seven-piece music ensemble was onstage throughout (the harp particularly celestial in both look and sound). The pilgrim choristers moved in gentle circles, and patterns of lifted arms and leans that swayed during the orchestral interludes.

On a long banquette at stage left, the pilgrims sat during the story, folding origami birds that figured into the tale. Each member of the all-male cast wore white pants and shirts/tunics; the soloist characters were recognizable only by simple, telling props (the Madwoman/mother carried a white parasol; the traveler a walking staff).

Tenor Isaiah Bell was the Madwoman and carried the emotional heart of the music. Bell used the parasol to enter and exit scenes, and the banquette served as a runway like the corridors of Japanese Kabuki. Bell sang the tale of the lost son as he delicately walked among the choristers, a silent audience and community. The Leader of the Pilgrims/Abbot, Clinton Curtis, led the chorus in. After the singers removed their sandals (another subtle homage to Japanese practice), they moved into patterns – a circle, a trio of parallel lines – lightly conducted and led by Curtis. The movement Morris crafted for his non-dancers depended upon their rhythm and harmony; they shifted in gentle waves. The story, framed in their entrance and exits, white and pure, started and ended with the “Te Lucis,” celestial symmetry from beginning to end.

Laurel Lynch in “Dido and Aeneas.” Photo © Nan Melville.

The second work, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” was far from a sacred tale. Purcell based his opera on the dramatic Greek story of love, betrayal and magic – perfect for classical dance treatment. Morris treated it classically, but in his idiosyncratic way. The lead characters – Dido and Aeneas, the Sorceress, Belinda – had their solos and duets. The chorus framed the dramatic scenes, and were like moving images from Greek frescoes, perfectly spaced bodies often in profile and lined along a narrow low platform upstage, like a frieze border, angled and even.

Like “Swan Lake” with Odette and Odile danced by the same ballerina, Morris paired the noble, tragic Dido and the evil Sorceress to be danced by a single dancer, Laurel Lynch (in roles he premiered himself in 1989), and sung by a single artist, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Lynch’s dance lines as Dido were elegant, especially her long angled lunges off the short bench upstage that framed many of her scenes. As the Sorceress, she used the same bench as a base for a deep back bend that flopped her head and arms toward the audience in a tangled mess; at the dance’s end, she translated that same angle into Dido’s death posture, a wonderful choreographic echo that Lynch enacted with her equally skilled embodiment of these two opposite characters. Blythe also offered a gorgeously distinctive character pairing, noble Dido’s declamations and sorrow in the opera’s famous lament contrasting with the spiteful and powerful Sorceress.

Just as Morris used white to frame “Curlew River,” he used black here to create a mood of evil, particularly in the witch’s scenes with her minions – a chorus who entered with hands over their eyes, blinded to good. The two witches who were her evil servants were both played by male dancers (Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray), in a direct physical contrast of line and grace to Dido’s beautiful sister attendants.

These paired pieces were a yin and yang of music and dance, the holy and the profane, the music-led and movement-led. The combination was entirely effective. The opening night was dedicated to Harvey Lichtenstein, the president and executive producer of BAM, the architect of its transformation into an arts powerhouse and supporter of creative experimentation. It’s likely that this performance would have pleased him.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

Mark Morris: Two Operas
Mark Morris Dance Group and MMDG Music Ensemble
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, NY
March 15, 2017

Cover: Alex Sopp and Isaiah Bell in “Curlew River.” © Nan Melville.

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