Opera Miriam Cosic an­tic­i­pates the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val Dido & Ae­neas

Dance and opera blur in an ab­sorb­ing Dido & Ae­neas , writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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-

Dido & Ae­neas,

Sasha Waltz and Guests in

a reimag­in­ing of the Henry Pur­cell opera

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