DANCE / Edinburgh Festival: Morris dancers do it with creative genius

THE Schola Cantorum of Edinburgh is lumped in with the Scottish Ensemble in the pit. The stage lights go up and the Mark Morris Dance Group, in black sarongs, stand in a row. They begin moving in single file, taking up positions along a balustrade. They pose there for a minute, motionless, like characters on a Grecian urn.

Suddenly they fly off the low wall as if to live within the music, bending and curling inside the chords. This music is 300 years old (by Purcell) but Mark Morris makes it new again through dance. So developed is his musicality that the familiar tum-ta-tum of the Baroque score feels as though it was composed, say, about a month ago. The effect makes you shiver.

Purcell wrote Dido and Aeneas to be performed by girls at a boarding school. There is a notoriously silly libretto by one Nahum Tate, but never mind that, Mark Morris has his own ideas. (Indeed, it is his ideas that led to the hate-hate relationship between him and Belgian audiences when he was at the Theatre de la Monnaie between 1988 and 1991. They thought him a loathsome loudmouth and begged him to go back to America. He thought them virtually fascist and said so.)

Less than an hour long, Dido and Aeneas tells of the seduction of Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Aeneas. So heroic is he after the Trojan war (and doesn't he know it?) that he is earmarked by the gods to do nothing less than found Rome. He stops at Carthage and falls for Dido.

A militant homosexual, Morris plays the Queen of Carthage. Ha] But the joke is on us. He bends gender to such an extent that he renders it irrelevant. Dido goes beyond character to become a commanding emblem for the syndrome an American writer describes as smart women making foolish choices. Morris's only concession to the role is tying his hair back.

The Morris style is best exemplified in the chorus, who play courtiers, witches, spirits, and sailors. They slip in and out of a weighty style, centred around the torso with swinging arms, so that one second they are Donna Summer shrugging wide shoulders in a disco, the next children leaping like frogs in a playground, then inmates at a home for people with nervous tics.

The ideas keep flowing: there is mime (hands circling the face denote a mirror), symbolism in the fanned hands of despair, signing for the deaf (a sickle shape meaning 'never' underlines the libretto) and an Indian flavour, with hands and feet upturned. He keeps the audience busy watching.

There is a respite when the stage is cleared for the seduction scene. The bare-chested, dreadlocked Guillermo Resto lies on top of Dido, consummating their love with one pelvic thrust, a star pupil of the wham bam (that long?) school, leaving a deflated Dido, arms outstretched. A far cry indeed from a girls' boarding school.

Morris is very clever, very intriguing, but the thought that niggles is that he may be stuck. Although true to the great traditions of modern American dance, he never quite reaches beyond them. Still, the wild man deserves his reputation as a creative genius.

(Photograph omitted)