Daniel Brown close-reads a moment of sublime choreography
Welcome to “A Moment In”, a new Partisan series in which writers train their sights on a micro-moment in a work of art and conduct a close reading. (Remember the close reading? Long before the hot take, it boldly walked the earth.)
The inaugural installment—by the accomplished poet Daniel Brown, who inspired this series—brings into high definition the fading minutes of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, as designed by the American choreographer Mark Morris. Please pitch other moments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A MOMENT THAT’S exceptional even for Mark Morris, a choreographic genius (and not just of the MacArthur persuasion, though he’s that, too) comes at the end of the dance he set to Henry Purcell’s marvelous pocket-sized opera, Dido and Aeneas. At this point in the dance, the scenery, to call it that, consists of nothing but a rear curtain, a small bench at center stage, and a seat beside the bench. Lying supine on the bench is Dido, Queen of Carthage. Her lover, the Trojan hero Aeneas, has abandoned her—admittedly at the gods’ behest (he has Rome to go found), but still. Dido, unable—or, perhaps more accurately, unwilling, in her imperious way—to survive this blow, has lain down to die. On the seat beside her, looking at her fixedly, is her devoted maidservant Belinda.
The opera’s closing chorus is underway: a corps of dancers weaves about Dido, miming compliance with the chorus’s injunction to “scatter roses on her tomb.” As the music moves into an instrumental postlude, the corps splits into parallel files that step slowly and ceremoniously toward the back of the stage along its left and right edges. Reaching the rear curtain, the files make right angle turns inward and continue on toward each other. When their two leaders meet at the center of the curtain, they step together through a parting in it and are gone. Two by two, the dancers in train follow suit, the files gradually dwindling to disappearance. You’d think that this processional, which takes a while, might become tedious, but in fact it exerts, in its ritual way, a sustained fascination. (The elegiac beauty of Purcell’s music helps hold us rapt.) As the only action on offer while it’s happening, the processional becomes the focus of our attention. When it’s over, we find ourselves again aware of the motionless Dido and Belinda, who seem to reappear at the center of the stage: an uncanny effect achieved by the simple means of a magician’s misdirection.
The music is now ending. As its final notes are sounded, Belinda, who has all along been gazing at her mistress, turns her head toward us and looks at us, inviting the audience to participate in her grief. (This breaking of the “fourth wall” must be among the more notable examples in the history of the proscenium.) We may be so overcome by Belinda’s look as to feel that she, not Dido, has occupied the emotional center of the work we’ve been watching; that her love for Dido is the deepest—in fact the only—love in the piece, Dido and Aeneas having felt mere passion for one another. To the extent that Belinda assumes this centrality, it’s been bestowed on her less by Purcell (or by the author of the opera’s superb libretto, Nahum Tate) than by Morris—who in doing so has moved beyond interpretation to reconception.
In thinking back on this whole closing scene, it may occur to us that what Morris asks his dancers to do in it is so technically undemanding that it could have been done, in its essentials, by people plucked off the street. You could hardly even call it dance. But then what would you call it? Not that it matters: we’d only need a name for this art were more of it in prospect. We—maybe even Morris—should be so lucky.
DANIEL BROWN's latest book is What More? (2015). His work has appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, and Parnassus.