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Flash Review, 3-22: Swimming with Sasha
Waltz & Guests Take on 'Dido and Aeneas'

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2007 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Sasha Waltz has always been an ambitious choreographer, but as her big operatic work "Dido & Aeneas" showed in its London premiere March 14 at Sadler's Wells, she has reached new heights of ambition in terms of scale, budget and artistic endeavour. Her company of ten is joined by Berlin's Vocalconsort and Akademie fur Alte Musik for this unconventional rendition of Purcell's opera in three acts and one prologue. Having been performed previously at the grandiose Berlin State Opera, the production struggled to fit into Sadler's Wells's more modest-sized theater. The stage and pit looked like they were bursting at the seams in their bold efforts to contain the host of performers, orchestra and sets.

The opening scene of "Dido & Aeneas" takes place around a pre-fabricated swimming pool which is less impressive than the publicity suggests, although to fill it with water deep enough for the dancers to swim in and then drain it without flooding the stage must have taken some sophisticated engineering. It looks like a long narrow aquarium -- entirely transparent, so that the audience can fully view the swimming dancers -- takes up most of the width of the stage and is attached to a huge black metal framework. This structure is set on wheels and therefore conveniently mobile. The dancers climb up ladders at either end of the 'fish tank' and plunge in leisurely, as if at some luxurious spa. Once immersed in the water, which is lit from below, the dancers bring the pool to life, as they dart around like sea nymphs, flimsily clad in colourful transparent materials; the visual effect is like a detail from a Boticelli painting. While the other dancers are enjoying the water, the narrator, Charlotte Engelkes, recites the text by Nahum Tate (a reworking of the fourth chant of "Aeneis" by Vergil). Although she is a strong performer, her accent is very forced and irritating, and ultimately diluted by the novelty of watching the watery wonderland.

It is not until the following scene, after the swimming pool with all its visual distractions has been removed, that the performance really begins to take shape, in spite of its fragmented staging. Throughout the two-hour duration of "Dido & Aeneas" there is an endless commotion of exits and entrances and there is so much happening simultaneously on stage, that it is difficult not to feel a little lost as an audience member. While Waltz does not generally favor smooth, linear narratives in her work, and is always one to challenge an audience, often the subtleties of movement and music are lost in the size of this production and the restless clashing of disciplines.

Waltz is a democratic director as she doesn't favor particular performers above others but focuses on everyone, which although admirable makes it confusing, initially, to work out who the main protagonists are. The singers move with such dancerly ease, that sometime they are indistinguishable from the dancers themselves. Aeneas is played by dancer Virgis Puodziunas and singer Reuben Willcox, while Dido is shared by dancers Valeria Apicella and Michal Mualem and singer Aurore Ugolin. If there are any 'stars' they are the two singers: Willcox, a physical giant with a voice to match, and Ugolin, whose fluid movement style is as convincing as her smooth velvety voice. While Ugolin is a vulnerable and wronged heroine, Willcox commands the stage with his war hero's presence.

Costumes by Christine Birkle are vivid and fantastic, a mixture of haute couture, period and contemporary which helps to contribute to the visual feast, which this production is. A wonderful melange of fabrics is wrapped around the performers, taken off and in one section thrown into the air with decadent abandon. A massive painted backdrop by Thomas Schenk suggesting the towers of Carthage frames the stage. Its simple modernist design and color compliments the costumes and makes the stage look deceptively bigger.

The fleshy raw corporeality of Waltz's choreography shines through in places, even though it is more watered down than in her previous productions. Bodies are clustered in semi-naked groups, crawling out of holes in the stage, rolling in unison across the stage, or piled on top of each other in a mass of tangled limbs to express extreme emotions of helplessness, pain and desire; in other sections these same bodies are choreographed in proud formal groups and perform courtly dances to suggest the regal hospitality of Dido. A mystical dimension is achieved through two aerial dancers who, attached to wires, hover close above the ground or soar into space like spirits sent by the Gods. A lasting image for me is that in which the singer portraying Dido and one of the dancers taking the part appear in the final, Lament scene running their hands through meters of hair which cascades from their heads. Their lengthy locks appear to root them to the earth, suggesting the deserted queen's hopelessly sad condition and unrequited love.

Small panels inbuilt on the stage are slowly lit by one of the dancers, like beacons planted on a beach, symbols of the futile hope for the return of Aeneas. From the water at the beginning to the flames at the end, no stage trick has been left unturned, no production cost denied in Waltz's "Dido & Anenas." While there are many magical moments, her production is just too impersonally huge to be truly amazing.


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