Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Star (Merkens) Shadowing a Star

There is only one Mark Morris, for better or worse. Even though he hasn't figured out how to subdivide or clone himself, he managed to wear several hats during the Mostly Mozart run of his Dido and Aeneas at the Rose Theater (through tonight). First and foremost, he is choreographer of this gem of a production, one that remains an outstanding work in his oeuvre after 23 years. Second, he is the conductor, in the orchestra pit having a jolly old time, right across from the powerhouse mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (her voice raises the roof), and other crack singers. Third, and somewhat vexing, if unavoidable, his ghost lives onstage in the dual roles of Dido and the Sorceress, now danced by Amber Star Merkens.

It's not that Merkens is subpar. She's engrossing, emotionally complex, with a whiff of the tragic. As much as I've admired her in her 11 years with Mark Morris Dance Group, she has remained unknowable, unlike so many of the company's members whose personalities have become as familiar as old slippers. That mystery has been part of her trademark. She is physically commanding, with sure, clean lines, but more likely than not bearing a placid facial expression evocative of the Mona Lisa. She communicates primarily with the rest of her body, reserving for herself whatever psychological underpinnings roil beneath the surface.

Mark Morris is one of those performers whose magnetism is a force of nature. Whatever he's performed in, he'd be the one to draw the eye. He has innate technical skills—notably his sense of balance and centering—to make any dancer jealous. But beyond his technique, his presence has always been undeniable, his sheer force or personality combined with a healthy dose of camp and humor. As Dido/the Sorceress, these traits seemed to multiply exponentially, intoxicating us in the audience along with the delightful Purcell score and the dramatics unfolding onstage via the mimetic, rhythmic movement. It will never be possible to strike the memory of Morris in these roles, alongside Guillermo Resto as Aeneas, nor should it be. It just isn't perfectly fair to the dancers who followed in these roles. (Incidentally, I fondly recall Bradon McDonald's interpretation of the roles; he perhaps came closest to Mark's exuberance, if with even more ferocity.)  

Today's Dido remains engaging in different ways. Domingo Estrada Jr. is a strapping, sweet-natured Aeneas, and Maile Okamura and Rita Donahue are Dido's smart-moving right-hand women. Merkens switches handily between the stricken, midas-nailed Dido and the sinister Sorceress in part by unpinning her hair, which, when draped over her face, looks vaguely like Morris' did back when, but also with her unironic thrill in being evil. She'll never be Mark—no one will—but we take pleasure in her subtlety and with what she chooses to share of her profound gifts.

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