In 1989, not long after he became director of dance at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Mark Morris, who was then 32, made a dance to Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas." In 1689, Purcell had buttoned up the sexual passion of Virgil's doomed queen and her lover. Now, 300 years later, Mark Morris unleashed it. In his version, the good queen and her wicked alter-ego were frankly sexual - Dido writhed for Aeneas's touch and the Sorceress was an obscene, gleefully filthy witch.
At the piece's debut, the same mesmerizing dancer - Mark Morris - played both Dido and the Sorceress. It was a tour de force: gutsy, impassioned, indelible. Mr. Morris performed the dual role for years, most recently in 2000. There was talk that "Dido and Aeneas" would be retired from the repertory, as it was difficult to imagine anyone else in that astounding role.
On Wednesday night, in the second of three programs celebrating the Mark Morris Dance Group's 25th anniversary at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, "Dido and Aeneas" returned to the stage. The piece had not been seen in New York in eight years, and no one had ever seen it without Mr. Morris. This time around, the Dido and the Sorceress roles were split between two dancers. Neither was Mark Morris, although one (the Sorceress) was a man.
Mr. Morris's recasting of "Dido and Aeneas" was just the latest signpost in a long transition period. For years, the company has been adjusting to having Mr. Morris and the rest of the old guard in the wings rather than on the stage. It now falls to the troupe's sleek second generation to animate works like "Dido and Aeneas" - which is, incidentally, one of the half-dozen most acclaimed pieces in all of modern dance. It is also one of the juiciest, brimming with lust, crude humor, violence, and agony. All in all, a tall order.
It was delightful, then, to see the new "Dido and Aeneas" soar. I cannot remember the last time I felt such an electric hush in the house during the first minutes of a dance. From the moment the lights went up on the brilliant-blue backdrop and the two low white balustrades - a long one upstage, a shorter bench-like one downstage - the entire audience was rapt.
Amber Darragh, the new Dido, was luminous. Her white skin drew the eye, and under the cool lights, her sculpted muscles glowed like Greek marble come to life. On her, Dido's squared-off motions and angular arms had nobility; her fingernails, painted silver, glinted like sharp little knives as she raked them down her tunic in that unforgettable gesture of torment.
The first woman to play "Dido," Ms. Darragh danced with Mr. Morris's clear-eyed, unsentimental vigor. Though she was deeply, poignantly in character, there was nothing actressy about her performance. Her body cut the air like a whip - there was her meaning. And when, in grief, her ramrod back relented and she at last gave in to rounded, pliant motion, it was heartbreaking.
Then there was Bradon McDonald, tasked with the campy yet grim role of the Sorceress. I was struck by how much Mr. McDonald resembles the young Mr. Morris: He has the same curling locks, a similarly big, broad body, and some of that insolent charisma. But as the Sorceress, Mr. McDonald did not merely imitate Mr. Morris; he acutely inhabited the role. He, too, was magnetic.
He made the odd collection of steps into one inevitable sweep of personality: a flopping, rubbery extended foot, a nasty slap, a sinuous shudder. Even with his back to us, sitting on a bench, he was a force. When he whacked the bench with his hands, he splayed his arms like spider legs.
It is critical to the piece that Mr. McDonald really play a woman, not a man in drag, and he mostly did. There were diva-like moments in the performance that pulled me out of the witches' coven and back into my awareness of his gender. No doubt it was easier to believe in the Sorceress as a woman when the same dancer was portraying the sober, lovely Dido. But to his immense credit, Mr. McDonald effortlessly found the lewd and vicious tones of the role. For the piece to succeed, he needed to provide a counterweight in evil to balance Dido's passion, and he did.
The rest of the company danced brilliantly. Craig Biesecker was fine in the difficult role of Aeneas, who lies at one end of an invisible force field between the lovers. The ensemble danced with fervor, bending their bodies into those mysterious, hieroglyphic-like shapes.
There was, all the while, an embarrassment of riches in the orchestra pit. Together, the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, and the Riverside Choral Society Chamber Singers, directed by Patrick Gardner, gave a gorgeous rendition of Purcell's opera. But it was difficult to make out the words of the libretto, and given the importance of the opera's narrative to the dance, I longed to hear those words from the characters' mouths in real time.
The piece itself remains the star: timelessly beautiful, fascinating, exactingly staged. There are lovely refrains in it, like that fast, inching step that moves the dancers magnificently forward and backward. There are distinct gestures, almost like sign language, that call out to an ancient time. By the final moments, watching the dancers slip out, one by one, I wanted to call them back to begin again.
The same cannot be said for the 2000 "Four Saints in Three Acts," the other dance on the program. It, too, is set to a short opera (Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's 1934 piece of the same name); it too employs a large cast and a striking set (this one in sunny, batik-like colors). But it is a bit thin when it comes to choreography, and a bit empty when it comes to feeling. Mr. Morris has set the bar so high in his work, and has access to such vast musical resources, that it is hard to accept a piece like "Four Saints" from him.
Until March 28 (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 718-636-4100).