The Mark Morris Dance Group was at the George Mason University Center for the Arts this weekend along with 12 dancers, four vocal soloists, the MMDG Music Ensemble, and the GMU Singers, for a wonderful performance of Dido and Aeneas.

As staged by Mark Morris, Dido and Aeneas incorporates the full musical and vocal score of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera of the same name with his characteristic style of modern dance (it premiered in 1989, exactly 300 years later). Each solo dancer corresponds to a vocal soloist, and the corps is reflected by the chorus. All wore simple black attire, but musicians and singers (conducted by Morris) were in the orchestra pit, while the dancers were on the stage.

This was the first Morris piece I’ve seen live, and I came away from it with new insights into both Purcell’s work (which I was familiar with) and into what makes for a satisfying dance performance.

The sparse production proved how little is necessary to showcase good dancing and choreography. Aside from an abstract backdrop and good lighting design, the set was composed of three curtains and two or three low platform-type structures, and was extremely effective in doing what it needed to do.

Morris demonstrated that superhuman feats of strength, flexibility, height, and other athletic ability are not the prerequisites for incredible dancing and beautiful art. Eighty percent of the choreography was composed of movements familiar to my own vocabulary, and yet the placing, timing, phrasing, musicality, grace, control, and sensitivity of the choreography and dancers awed me more than 30 consecutive fouettes ever could.

Like most operas, when going to see this piece it is wise to familiarize oneself with at least the plot synopsis, if not the libretto so that you can understand what is going on. Even though it is in English, the operatic style it is sung in means it might as well be sung in a foreign language, as you can only really hear a few of the words clearly.

In brief, Aeneas, on his way to found Rome by order of the gods, asks Dido, who is the Queen of Carthage, for her hand in marriage, which she eventually acquiesces. Meanwhile, an evil sorceress and her minions are plotting to kill Dido so that Carthage will be ruined. They develop a ruse in which a false Mercury tells Aeneas that he must leave immediately for Rome. Dido, unready to leave, urges him to go and when he leaves, she dies….but not before singing one of opera’s most hauntingly beautiful arias, When I am laid in earth.

Interpreting lyrics in dance runs the risk of being hokey. Here, I am reminded of a student exchange trip to Japan at the age of 12, in which we solemnly mimed the lyrics to Bette Midler’s From a Distance in sign language as our cultural gift to the Japanese people.

However, when such risks are taken and work, the results can be spectacular. Such was the case with Dido and Aeneas. The dancing actually enhanced Purcell’s genius, with interpretations in movement that stayed on just the right side of not literally interpreting the lyrics. Rhythms created by the dancers, both aurally and visually added unexpected syncopation and accent to the musical score. And just as Purcell’s music is characterized by symmetry and deliberate pacing, so was the choreography.

My only criticism of the performance was going to be that the women who played Dido and the Sorceress looked so much alike that it was impossible to tell them apart at times at the beginning of a scene. I was wrong on two counts here. Number one, the dancer who played Dido and the Sorceress was actually the same person, with a quick change in hairstyling the only thing distinguishing them. Number two, the dancer who played these two characters with what I was going to characterize as “Amazonian fierceness” was actually a man (Bradon McDonald). A closer look at the program notes revealed that Morris himself premiered these roles; if I had done my research beforehand, I would not have been so surprised. It is a testament to McDonald’s abilities that, at least from the nosebleed section, he came across just as one would want a proud queen (female ruler, that is) to dance—with femininity, pride and strength. It does explain why Dido seemed incredibly muscular for a woman.

The entire company was very strong, and I particularly enjoyed the spritely Maile Okamura as Dido’s sister Belinda, who projected character all the way up to row NN of the balcony. Christopher Johnstone’s Aeneas had the most “wow” factor in his explosiveness of movement.

I would also be remiss in not mentioning the strength of the singers—both soloists and the GMU singers, who were just as important to the production as the dancers.

All in all, this was an evening that I will hold in my mind for much time to come, and I can’t wait to see more of Mark Morris.