This summer is just packed with dance events in London: what lucky audiences we are. No sooner have the Kirov finished their first season than Mark Morris Dance Group is in residence at the Coliseum, appearing in an intriguing double Bill - Four Saints in Three Acts, by Virgil Thomson, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. On Mark Morris’s last visit here a couple of years ago, a very sharp division was notable in the audience: there were the dance fans, and there were the ENO opera fans who book the whole season and were a bit bemused by the whole process (‘why are those people running around on stage ?’, I recall hearing). There seemed to be much less of a difference this time: the dance element has been emphasised rather more strongly in the publicity.
The staging is interesting, with the singers and chorus occupying the four large boxes, two on each level, beside the stage, with some occasional, ghostly and effective singing from the back of the auditorium. The effect is to make the Coliseum seem surprisingly intimate for such a large theatre: the music seems more enveloping, and the work seemed to be taking place around you rather than somewhere in the distance. (This is written, I should say, from a view at the edge of the dress circle, quite close to the stage. From there the diction of the singers on the other side of the auditorium seemed excellent, but the singers on the same side at stalls level sounded indistinct. Different seats may give a very different result.)
Four Saints was Morris in one of his more playful and light-hearted moods. The text, by Gertrude Stein, is not at all concerned with anything as concrete as events or narrative, but more with the effects of repetition and with the delight of the sounds of words for their own sake. Naturally, there are more than four saints, and more than three acts. Morris gives up two leading dancers , St Teresa (Michelle Yard) and St Ignatius (John Heginbotham), plus six couples. It’s very episodic, but Morris keeps up a remarkable flow of invention.
In his usual eclectic way he manages to weave in many different points of reference : there are reminders of folk dance in the circles, and also of children’s playground games. It’s sweet, but never cloying. Some dances have a formal and courtly air, particularly for the two leading dancers: but nothing is ever solemn, and there are some characteristic Morris jokey passages. The backdrops are bright bold colours, again with a folk art feel. The costumes, with their shawl-like wraps for the women, also give the air of a peasant festival. However, although the work all appears quite light and simple (and is danced with a real spontaneous and lively feel), the craft is concealed: Morris may appear to use quite simple steps, but the overall design is a sophisticated one.
Dido and Aeneas is quite a different experience musically: it may have been the change in some of the singers’ positions, but this work seemed much more clearly enunciated. It is much more concentrated, focused and intense experience than the looser Saints, both musically and onstage. The narrative is clearly and concisely expressed, and there are commanding performances in the central roles from Morris himself as Dido and Guillermo Resto as Aeneas. Resto is magnificently still and formal as the role demands, and has great presence. If perhaps you think that a not particularly slim or youthful Morris might not be ideal casting in the twin role of Dido and the Sorceress, then you ought to go and see this. He is Dido: anxious, shy, passionate, determined and regal by turns. As the evil Sorceress, he has enormous fun.
The poses and the movements for the leading dancers are formal, studied and composed in a way which seems entirely right for the music. The poses of the hands and the almost ritual movements of the arms brought surprising memories of the Faune from the Royal’s recent Diaghilev bill, a connection I would never have made before. Morris has a very sure response to the music, and the dances flow smoothly and seamlessly.
The company are an interestingly mixed bunch of physical types: they are all obviously from planet earth rather from planet Guillem, or wherever ballet dancers originate. On previous visits, I found some of the bigger dancers rather off-putting: either the company has changed or my eyes have. The range of body types in the company now seems logical, a counterpart to Morris’s magpie interests and influences. Michelle Yard, for example, doesn’t have a ballerina’s thighs, but is a musical and attractive dancer.
Sarah Connolly sang Dido, and ‘When I am laid in earth’ was beautifully done, bringing the work to a close, music and dance fusing together in a tender and melancholy moment.