Once the famed bad boy of dance, Mark Morris is now known as the grand old man of the genre — the characterization having more to do with the nature of his art, rather than his age, 55.
The choreographer, whose 1989 “Dido and Aeneas” returns to Cal Performances in Berkeley this weekend for the first time in a decade, has gone from infamous to truly famous — not so much because he has changed, but because the world has caught up with his quirky, imaginative and sincere creations.
Morris’ acclaimed evening-length works include “The Hard Nut” and “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” In addition to dances for his own troupe, he has created seven premieres for the San Francisco Ballet. In 2009, the company marked 15 years of collaboration by presenting the first All-Morris program, of “A Garden” (2001), “Joyride” (2008) and “Sandpaper Ballet” (1999).
“Dido” is an excellent example of how Morris synthesizes old and new, and how he sheds new light on a classic, both honoring and altering the values of a historical masterpiece.
Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera, based on Virgil’s “Aeneid,” is about the fatal love affair between Dido, queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, leader of the Trojan army. This week, the work’s superb music will be performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, led by Morris making his Bay Area conducting debut.
When “Dido” premiered in Brussels in 1989, Morris danced both the female title role and the evil Sorceress that Purcell added to the original story. Notable not just for its artistic and musical values, the New York Times called it “a political statement about gender roles, gay liberation, and the male and female in all of us.”
Yet Morris never imposes that message on the audience. His presentations always are about staging, movement, the characters’ passion and tragedy, and the music.
Unlike at the premiere, this week’s performance features a woman, Amber Star Merkens, in the Dido/Sorceress role. Domingo Estrada Jr. appears as Aeneas.
The cast also features mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Dido and the Sorceress; baritone Philip Cutlip as Aeneas; the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, and Yulia Van Doren, Céline Ricci, Brian Thorsett in solo roles.
IF YOU GO
Mark Morris Dance Group
Presented by Cal Performances
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Telegraph Avenue near Bancroft Way, UC Berkeley campus
When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $30 to $110
Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu