Philip Johnston

Dido and AeneasCurrent Research Projects

My book Nina Fonaroff: The Art of Dance will be published in June 2014 by Celtic Cat Publishing in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Upcoming Productions

I will be the choreographer for Illinois Theatre's production of Oh What a Lovely War in fall 2014.

In summer 2014 I will begin production work in Ireland as director/choreographer for Somme, a devised work of physical theatre for performances in Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom in 2015-2016.

Production of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas

I will be choreographing and directing Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the BACH Ensemble at the round barn on St. Mary's Road in May 2014. I am interested in working outside the confines of the proscenium theatre and concert hall for this performance. I danced professionally for the English Bach Festival in London during the early 1980s, performing in many opera house productions throughout Europe. Dances were often performed as divertissements in banquet halls including the Banqueting Hall and the Royal Festival Hall in London. The renowned Baroque and Renaissance choreographer Belinda Quirey choreographed the dances for operas by Rameau, Handel, Couperin, and Lully. I danced the Baroque dances from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in London as a member of the English Bach Festival, and it is with the great pleasure that I will choreograph these dances and direct the opera next year.

For the past 20 years I have choreographed Baroque operas for Charlotte Mattax Moersch and several operas for Eduardo Diazmuñoz. I have also directed The Beggar's Opera for the BACH Ensemble and choreographed many works for Sinfonia da Camera for performances at Krannert Center.

When considering a venue for Dido and Aeneas my research directed me away from a conventional theatre. When Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, was first performed in London in 1688, it was not in one of the ubiquitous London theatres but in Josias Priest's girls' school. Dido and Aeneas is a monumental work in Baroque opera and one of Purcell's most theatrical works. It was not performed again until 1700 as a masque that was incorporated into an adapted version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Thomas Betterton's theatre in London.

In the United States Dido and Aeneas was first performed in New York in 1923 at the Plaza Hotel and in 1924 at New York City Hall. More recently the opera has been adapted to modern dance by the American choreographer Mark Morris in 1989 at the Théâtre Varia in Brussels. In 2005 the German choreographer Sasha Waltz choreographed Dido and Aeneas at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden with dancers performing underwater in an enormous tank.

My production at the round barn will involve a cast of dancers from Dance at Illinois, singers from Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, and musicians from the School of Music. The round barn is an ideal performance space: it has good acoustics and a sense of theatricality that would be difficult to recreate in a conventional theatre. I will be engaging an MFA lighting candidate, Guo YuYi, from the Department of Theatre to design the lighting for the opera, including large projections of works of by 17th-century artists. Costumes will be hired from Costume Rentals at Krannert Center. The set will be designed by Chad Tyler, an alumnus from the Department of Landscape Architecture, who recently designed the set for The Tempest, which was produced in October 2013 in the Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center.

Rehearsals at the round barn will begin as soon as spring weather permits. The direction of the work will be largely dependent on the space and what possibilities I find with the performers during the rehearsal period. The performance will take place after the spring 2014 semester has ended, and it is my hope to repeat it during the fall 2014 semester.

Chet Alwes will give a series of lectures on Henry Purcell's work. Nicole Faurant, a specialist in period costumes, will lecture on costumes of the Baroque period. I will give a lecture on Baroque dance covering the period from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century and the reforms of Jean Georges Noverre. Elen Deming will present a lecture on architectural spaces for opera and dance and the development of the proscenium stage in the 17th century. Charlotte Mattax Moersch and I have been discussing the possibility of a cross-listed course between the School of Music and Dance at Illinois with a special emphasis on music and dance of the Baroque and Renaissance periods. It is rare for our students to experience a fully staged performance of a major Baroque opera. I also choreographed the dances for Charlotte Mattax Moersch's production of Handel's Acis and Galatea in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center in March 2014.

Round Barns

Round BarnDeep in the heart of the University's South Farms district tower the three round barns. Built between 1907 and 1913, the three barns anchored the 20-acre dairy demonstration farm and "offer[ed] the dairy farmer 'economy of consideration, low maintenance, and labor efficiency.'" Although originally constructed as an experiment, the barns later led the way for round barns to take over Illinois. Fewer than 60 of them remain throughout the United States.

First built by the Shakers in 1824, round barns required less lumber and bracing for the frame. Construction was also simplified, as no elaborate scaffolding was required for the circular arched roof. The barns also proved more resilient against prairie storms.

The three University of Illinois barns were originally part of a larger complex known as the Experimental Dairy Barns and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.