Next week, the Mostly Mozart Festival revives Mark Morris’s acclaimed production of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas, which had its Brussels premiere in 1989. At the center of the work are Dido (the Queen of Carthage) and the Sorceress (whose scheming causes Dido’s downfall). In the work’s early years, both roles were danced by Morris.
Now both are performed by Amber Star Merkens, who recently spoke to me about her beginnings in dance and how it feels to step into her boss’s most famous role.
How did you start dancing?
My mom is a dance teacher. Some of my earliest memories are of being in class with her, even before I was taking class. She was just teaching adults at the time, but when I was a few years old she started teaching kids. She started the children’s class for me, essentially. It was modern dance. I didn’t realize until later how unique it was to grow up being exposed to modern as opposed to ballet or jazz.
What brought you to Mark Morris Dance Group?
I saw L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at BAM. It changed my life. I hadn’t seen much of the other repertory at the time, but I decided to audition for the company. It was a big cattle call audition. I made it all the way to the end, but I didn’t get it. I was asked to take company class, though, so Mark could get to know me. At the time, he didn’t really hire people he didn’t know. While I was taking class, I was so taken with Mark and his way of working — his curiosity and his intensity — that I said to myself, “I have to work here.” Luckily, he hired me a few weeks later.
In Dido and Aeneas, you danced Dido before you danced both Dido and the Sorceress. What was that like?
In 2006 I was cast as Dido, and Bradon McDonald was playing the Sorceress. It wasn’t long before Mark realized that we could both handle both parts. I loved performing just Dido, but doing both really pulled the piece together for me and created a much fuller character.
Were you surprised when Morris gave you such an important role?
I was, because I was still relatively new to the company. I also wasn’t as close to the piece as some people and didn’t fully know the magnitude of it when he gave me the role, which was probably a good thing.
Is it intimidating to perform a part so closely associated with Mark Morris the dancer?
Of course, but having Mark’s trust from the beginning helped. I’ve also danced some of Mark’s other solos — in Ten Suggestions and Rondo, for example — and it’s always an honor. His roles are always interesting to me. He created them to challenge himself, to do something he thought might be impossible to pull off.
Is one half of the dual role more difficult to dance than the other?
Dido’s movement was harder to master. It’s two-dimensional, and it’s hard to move with ease in that style. It requires a specific musculature to stay flat, and it feels very restrictive before you get used to it. The Sorceress, which came later, was difficult because it took me a while to find a physicality that differed enough from Dido and was more weighted. I understood the emotional part of it, but conveying that physically took longer.
Did Morris give you any pointers on how to approach the part?
He gave small comments here and there. Mostly he told me to do less, to simplify. When I first started dancing the Sorceress, he told me to play her as a man. I don’t think of the role that way anymore, but it did help me find a more aggressive, unruly kind of physicality.
Do you think it makes a difference whether a man or woman plays Dido and the Sorceress?
There’s a difference, but I also think that people place a lot of importance on and give meaning to the gender switch in a way that Mark didn’t intend. For him, it was just about playing that part, telling that story, and that’s what it is for me. What’s more interesting to me about it is his decision to make Dido and the Sorceress the same person.
Beyond gender, I would assume it’s different for every dancer who steps into the role.
Absolutely. People who think Dido is all about gender should really see it again. The work is more complex, more nuanced than that. Men used to play women’s roles in theater all the time. It doesn’t necessarily mean it should be taken as commentary. Because Mark is an openly gay artist, people take it that way.
In a recent interview, Morris made it clear that he doesn’t see Dido and Aeneas as a love story. Do you agree?
I do. The love comes only from Dido’s end. It’s not mutual. It’s something that’s happened across history: the man conquering and leaving. For me, the work is about a number of things. I see it as very much about friendship and sisterhood. Dido’s bond with Belinda is very strong, so the end is tragic for Belinda as well: She’s left alone. And of course, with the dual role, the work is also about self-destruction.
Does it feel strange to dance such a featured part when Morris so often avoids hierarchy?
So much of his work is about dancing together, and that’s what I love about it. Dido and Aeneas is just something different, but everyone is still very much a part of it. It was the same when we performed Romeo and Juliet. It can be exciting for us to see each other in distinct roles.
Morris recently started conducting Dido and Aeneas. What’s it like to have him standing right in front of you at all times?
It’s comforting. He’s a part of it, and he should be: He knows the score inside out. I love seeing him there. It’s almost like his energy coming from the pit is moving us all forward.
Mark Morris Dance Group performs Dido and Aeneas from August 22 to 25 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. For more information, visit the Mostly Mozart Festival website.