Opera Miriam Cosic anticipates the Sydney Festival Dido & Aeneas
Dance and opera blur in an absorbing Dido & Aeneas , writes Miriam Cosic
GERMAN names are legend in the art world, a lineage going back centuries in music, literature, theatre and the philosophy of aesthetics. Towering innovators of the past, such as Goethe, Brahms, Schiller and Wagner are practically household names, and 20th-century Germany continued to roil with radical art.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that Germany was a backwater when it came to dance. Pina Bausch, who died in 2009, is an obvious exception and her tanztheater continues to echo in the dance world. But apart from her, who?
Bausch had to go to New York for postgraduate study. Sasha Waltz, too, had to leave town — for Amsterdam and New York — when she decided to pursue what would become an exciting choreographic career.
‘‘ There were great, fantastic academies for visual arts, always. But contemporary dance has really only developed recently,’’ Waltz says by phone from Berlin in advance of bringing her multimedia production of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas to the Sydney Festival this month.
Waltz has been through many incarnations since she started her group, Sasha Waltz and Guests, with a witty, brightly coloured almost acrobatic piece, Travelogue: 20 to 8, in 1993. Through the years her world view has expanded and the scale of her works has grown larger, though the cheekiness still peeks out.
Her Dido & Aeneas is a deconstructed, visually intense take on the English composer’s first opera, staged only once in his lifetime, in 1688. Today, its haunting climactic aria, When I am Laid in Earth — popularly known as ‘‘ Dido’s Lament’’ — is famous. Australian operagoers will remember Patrick Nolan’s production, and Yvonne Kenny’s memorably statuesque and tragic Dido in 2009.
Some choreographers, when asked to direct opera, dolly it up with bodies writhing sporadically through the core proceedings. Waltz does something different. She insinuates dance into the original triumvirate of music, words and design to form a reintegrated whole. Singers dance and dancers sing. The dancers even swim, in Dido & Aeneas, in a giant fish tank in the prologue. The watery sequence, both ethereally beautiful and funny, conveys grandeur and nostalgia as the minutes play out and the water ebbs. Dance and set design even merge: bodies ripple like water, clumps of people form rocks.
Critics have differed on how well the integration works and how well the production illuminates the text. In any event, Waltz offers unusual and absorbing theatre.
Her own absorption from the very beginning has been with reaching for truth and clarity. It has resulted in breaking down the usual boundaries: between the art forms, but also between art, psychology and ontology.
Waltz started dancing when she was five. She dabbled in different forms of dance just for fun. Then, when she was 16, she attended a fateful workshop. ‘‘ It explored postmodern dance, contact improvisation and consciousness work, alignment and anatomical work, and that changed my perspective — and my life,’’ she says. ‘‘ I only wanted to study dance and specifically this sort of dance.’’
It was intellectually, psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, demanding, and it opened up a deepening world. ‘‘ I think it was a kind of a shock,’’ Waltz continues.
After three years at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam from the age of 20, she moved to New York for another year and freelanced in multidisciplinary collab- orations. By 1993, she was ready for the next step. Still researching the ideas that had intrigued her in that first workshop, she founded Sasha Waltz and Guests.
‘‘ There’s something in that approach from the internal world, something where you go deep into your subconscious and stay in touch with yourself, not just on the formal level, on the outside surface,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think — I hope! — that has stayed with me until now.’’
She has talked in the past about the ‘‘ hyperreality’’ of Travelogue: 20 to 8 and its explorations of fun, darkness and fatigue: three aspects of life that pretty well sum it up. There are high spots, low spots and recuperative rest in between, and our task is to find the balance between them.
She also has talked about her preoccupation with bringing clarity to the dance vocabulary. The importance of speaking clearly to an audience is not as obvious as it seems. ‘‘ I’m in the field on the performing arts, so I’m sharing something with the public,’’ she says now. ‘‘ It can be on many different levels, and I’m not such a fan of the very literal and onedimensional. I love subtext and layers, and really trying to reach that communication with the public that goes beyond a simple story-line. But it has to be clear.’’
When German director Thomas Ostermeier brought his riveting production of Hedda Gabler to Melbourne two years ago, he told The Australian he hated theatre in which blackclothed audiences were expected to bring an education in philosophy to untangle incomprehensible ideas. He wanted people to be able to bring their own experience to bear.
‘‘ Everyone carries their social background and their own history to the theatre,’’ Waltz says, agreeing with Ostermeier. ‘‘ There’s a diverse group of people who are sharing this moment together, and there will be as many interpretations as there are people. In dance it is even more open because we are not using words, which can be very direct and one-
Sasha Waltz and Guests in
a reimagining of the Henry Purcell opera