Review: Sasha Waltz & Guests in Dido & Aeneas at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14-18 Mar 07
Reviewed by Katie Fish - Friday 16 March 2007

Sasha Waltz’s Dido and Aeneas, is a contemporary interpretation of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera of the same name, in which Waltz combines underwater choreography with an allegorical libretto, and tanztheater with a pre-Romantic score. The work opens with two couples strolling casually around a transparent pool of water. They look out at the audience, point and whisper, exerting control by denying us their secret. As the audience claps the conductor’s entrance, a woman in a red see-through dress joins in the applause, questioning the performer/spectator boundary.

A dancer plunges into the pool and the audience gasps: the action may be simple and apparently artless yet it is also, somehow, exhilarating, as if we too experience the sensation of being submerged underwater. His partner shortly joins him and so begins their aquatic pas de deux. Their bodies entwine and twirl in unity. They gaze out at the audience like fish observing visitors at an aquarium. More dancers dive in, adding to the school of coiling bodies. At times they link hands, pulling and pushing each other towards and away. At other times they float, submissive to the resistance of the water. For a society that rarely stops and reflects the act of watching bodies yield to the force of nature is surprisingly engaging.

A wait of some minute ensues as the pool is taken off-stage. Time is masked, however, by the subtle but tangible current of Purcell’s music, seamlessly performed by Berlin’s Akademie für Alte Musik. The engaging rhythms vary in cadence but are continually flowing. Equally sinuous is the singing by the Berlin Vocalconsort, which washes over you like softly breaking waves.

The curtain-rise reveals a male duet whose movement is made all the more distinct by the sudden silence. The dancers trace a circle in the space with their arms, drawing them far behind and high up above them. One movement instigates another and as an arm rises, a knee lifts, and extends into a low lunge. Dancers run on in a multitude of directions and the stage becomes awash with bodies. A male dancer lifts a young boy above his head and a woman is lifted diagonally with her legs kicking the air. All the dancers raise and circle their arms in a moment of unexpected unison.

Dido, Queen of Carthage, is left alone onstage, but in Waltz’s production she is embodied by two dancers and one singer, all alike in long cream dresses. One Dido balances her counterpart on her back as she turns, bringing alive the notion of carrying the world on your shoulders. This same Dido drags the other across the stage, making tangible the burden she is forced to bear. Aeneas, the Trojan soldier, walks onstage, links his hands and forms spatial patterns above and around him. One of the women joins him and they fall to floor as one entity before rolling and rocking together, taking comfort in the other’s presence. The second woman, meanwhile, strokes her hands along her body before lowering to the floor, palms over her solar plexus. She looks on at her other self as if she were a stranger.

Later a child runs onto the empty stage, forming a silhouette in the dim light. He turns, leaps, and skips along a meandering pathway, before taking up a bow and shooting an arrow into the shadows. Is he a ghost of the son Dido and Aeneas are denied by fate? Is he an image of their desire made incarnate? He is just one of Waltz’s variations on Purcell’s original but his presence compels us to look anew at a work that is over 300 years old.

The unorthodoxy of Waltz’s production is apparent in her take on the burlesque in which aristocratic caricatures cross-dress and parade the stage. They pose as if for a portrait whilst hats, shawls, parasols, and even badminton racquets are passed amongst them. A colourful frenzy follows as garments are swapped and thrown into the air. A dancing-master clad in a ball-gown instructs his entourage how to bow and curtsey whilst a women crawls under the skirt of another and they become a horse whinnying and cantering across the stage.

Every scene is uniquely inventive and visually impelling, but the drama and beauty of the last makes its imagery especially poignant. The chorus form one line behind Dido, and one behind Aeneas, and snake in and out, up and down, back and forth in a sea of grief as the lovers are forced to part. As they reach out towards each other, they are held back by their train. Aeneas is grasped by his leg, Dido by her hair which trails to the floor. As Aeneas exits, Dido is enmeshed in her hair, imprisoning her like a net. Slowly she succumbs to the floor, released from her sorrow by death.

The denouement is marked by another earthly element as a dancer lights several small fires, before departing and leaving the audience to gaze into the cascading darkness.

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