Review: Bern Ballett – Witch-Hunt - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 22 - 25 May 2013
Reviewed by Laura Dodge - Friday 24 May 2013

Bern Ballett - Clemmie Sveaas in 'Witch-hunt' Photo: Philipp Zinniker

Performance reviewed: 22 May

Cathy Marston’s latest work, Witch-Hunt, takes inspiration from the story of Anna Göldi, the ‘last witch’ of Switzerland. In the 18th Century, Göldi was accused of bewitching an eight-year-old child (Annamiggeli Tschudi), putting sharp objects into the girl’s milk and causing her to vomit needles. After being arrested and tortured in 1782, Göldi was convicted (of poisoning rather than witchcraft) and executed, though more than 200 years later in 2008, she was exonerated by the Swiss justice system.

In the show’s programme, Marston asks: “Who is guilty and innocent in this terrible story? Who sinned against whom?” Her choreography suggests an equal level of uncertainty as to where to place blame. Characters are cleverly interwoven and complex, so that we see not just a simple case of perpetrator and victim, but a ‘witch’ and girl who have an unspoken tenderness and other conflicting influences, such as Göldi’s affair with the father and a mother who seems unable to nurture her young daughter.

Edward Kemp’s text is performed by narrator Mona Kloos, who takes on the adult form of our story’s bewitched child and reflects on the past. She speaks directly to the audience, her voice echoing in the silence of the Linbury Studio Theatre. “You change your mind… but we must be who we are. You can’t refashion us into what you prefer. We cannot be undone.”

The meaning of her words do not make sense until later when she questions her childhood judgement, but they immediately convey an urgent sense of desperation and confusion. Behind, dancers in white shirts and jackets resembling medical uniform scuttle around the stage carrying jars of milk. Against a backdrop of a series of metal rectangles (which form an inventive moveable climbing frame-like set), the feeling is raw and industrial, like a mental asylum or other old-fashioned place of restraint and order.

Musical sections, by Antonio Vivaldi and other composers, are interspersed with further narration. We are told that Göldi “had a power which was not a woman’s – cold and piercing like a weapon”. Child Annamiggeli, danced by Paula Alonso, grabs her stomach and contracts as if having a severe fit, aggressively throwing up the invisible needles that have supposedly been supernaturally imposed upon her.

Göldi, superbly performed by Clemmie Sveaas, is dragged from her cleaning duties into a cube-like enclosure of metal bars, against which she is brutally pulled, twisted and manipulated until she lies motionless on the floor and her cloth is laid over her face, though she subsequently resurrects herself from this ‘death’.

Marston’s choreography is aggressive and unsettling but much like a car crash, it has a fascination that demands attention. Against this brutality is a contrasting sense of intimacy, as bodies are frequently in very close proximity and the exquisitely-adept Bern Ballett dancers tenderly caress each others’ limbs.

Exactly what Marston wanted to achieve in Witch-Hunt (her last work for Bern Ballett) is uncertain but what resonates most strongly is the diversity of emotional response produced, which for me varied from feeling provoked to enticed and confused. My companion described the work as “disturbing, but in a good way” and I think these six words sum it up.

Continues at the Linbury Studio Theatre until 25 May

Laura Dodge writes for a number of publications including Dancing Times, The Londonist and English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word blog.

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