Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Here with Me

April 23, 2008

Brandon McDonald and Craig Biesecker in Dido and Aeneas
Photo : Alex Gallardo/LAT 2008

It seems I’ve heard a lot of anticipation around town in the last few weeks over this week's performances of Dido and Aeneas with the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Irvine Barclay Theater in Orange County. With so many people I know driving down south in the next few days, I was surprised to see such a sedate and rather less-than-capacity crowd on Tuesday when the show opened. In some ways, though, maybe this was appropriate considering that the whole affair seemed surprisingly staid and reserved overall.

Morris created this production nearly 20 years ago for La Monnaie and while it was a sensation at the time, it clearly does not have the impact that it once did. It might be argued that this is in part due to the absence of Morris himself in the lead roles of Dido and the Sorceress, though he is conducting the Pacific Symphony throughout all of the shows in this run. But time has had its way with all of us in the last 20 years, and I suspect even if Morris were still dancing, Dido and Aeneas would seem a little…well, dull.

Not that it isn’t pretty. Morris has created a modern piece that does perpetuate a type of classicism in its movements. The minimal staging and striking lighting keep the focus appropriately on the dancers who are without exception excellent. Tuesday night’s cast recreates the gender role-play Morris instilled in the original production by casting Craig Biesecker as Aeneas and another man, Brandon McDonald, in the double role of Dido and the Sorceress. McDonald will alternate with Amber Darragh in this role during the week. But two decades on, while visually pleasing, none of this seems particularly shocking. What’s worse, the lack of gender tension exposes the more slapstick and comedic elements of the piece creating something of a tone problem. Not that it can’t be funny, but there is little pathos in this particular tragedy. Dido’s death seemed more the last item on a brief checklist than anything that might actually make you feel sad.

The musical performances were reasonable, but not overwhelming for either the performers or the audience. All of the vocalists are stationed in the pit, but the Barclay is quite tiny overall and everyone seemed to carry without too much stress. I particularly liked Jamie Van Eyck signing the part of Dido. Morris keeps everyone on task in the service of the dancing, which I suppose is as it should be, but this is no period practices performance and a little zing could have gone a long way. At just under an hour, all of this passes by rather quickly. Morris' Dido seems more like a faded photograph—it induces pleasant memories without necessarily creating new ones. Performances continue through Sunday, and it appears there are still plenty of tickets available.

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