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  • Dancing Dido
  • Tina Fehlandt (bio)

Mark Morris has been praised and criticized for the heterogeneous quality of his choreography. If there is no such thing as a universal “Mark Morris style,” it is because each of his works uses a unique movement vocabulary to create a world into which performers and audience must enter and then leave behind when the work is done. Dido and Aeneas requires a special kind of “entering in” for its dancers: in the majority of its incarnations, all of the dancers—except for Aeneas, appropriately enough—remain onstage for the duration of the piece, a detail that might not be apparent in the widely available video version. This aspect of the opera in part has its origins in the space in which I, as a member of Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), first performed Dido, at the Théâtre Varia in Brussels, a black box-style venue with no wings. When we were not dancing, we could not retreat to the comfort of backstage, but rather had to stand intently and watch whatever was happening on stage, whether it was Aeneas contemplating leaving Carthage or Dido lamenting the loss of her love.

Even within Dido itself, however, there are multiple worlds to contend with, and the rapid transitions between these realms proved to be one of the biggest challenges to us as dancers. Morris has noted elsewhere that the ability of dance to quickly change mood—more readily than opera or theater—was one reason that he felt the opera was suited to such dance-intensive treatment. Whereas the movement for the scenes at Dido’s palace is elegant, restrained—even two-dimensional, like an animated wall-painting—the witches and sailors throw themselves about with abandon, stomping and writhing in every direction. In an opera, even in a short one, the dancers usually spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for their next entrance. But in Morris’s dances we were constantly in motion and were rarely offstage for more than a few minutes at a time. We quickly learned that sitting still on the bench in a hieroglyphic pose was more rigorous than any of our other dancing. Put more bluntly, the restrained ethos of the court was literally a pain, such that we even invented a name for our ailment: “Dido neck.” Moreover, in Dido we became responsible for our own wardrobe changes. When moving from one realm of the opera to another, we not only had to change mood, but rearrange our sarongs. A photo from the early preparation period of Dido in Brussels shows everyone’s sarongs behaving well, despite the fact that we experienced more than a few comical wardrobe malfunctions in our initial rehearsals. [End Page 190]

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Figure 1.

Mark Morris, Dido and Aeneas in rehearsal in Brussels, 1989. Dancers (l to r) Megan Williams, Jon Mensinger, Jean-Guillaume Weis, Ruth Davidson, Alyce Bochette, William Wagner, Susan Hadley, Tina Fehlandt, Joachim Schloemer.

Photograph by Danielle Pierre ©, courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

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Figure 2.

Mark Morris, Dido and Aeneas in rehearsal in Brussels, 1989. Tina Fehlandt in foreground.

Photograph by Danielle Pierre ©, courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

By the time we began Dido, dancing to vocal music was a natural thing for MMDG dancers. Morris himself loved singing and listening to others sing, and from the earliest years of the company he used vocal music. His eclectic taste meant that [End Page 191] we drew from all sorts of vocal music, and not just classical repertoire, from Brahms (New Love Song Waltzes, 1982) to Yoko Ono (Dogtown, 1983), from Pergolesi (Stabat Mater, 1986) to the Violent Femmes (Lovey, 1985). And, in fact, one of his most famous dances based on vocal works—Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, 1988—had been created and performed in the fall of 1988 immediately before the rehearsal period for Dido began, making them siblings of sorts. Thus a dance in which the voice was foregrounded in and of itself wasn’t an unusual project for Morris, and we would later learn...


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