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Letter from Berlin, 12-13: Female Trouble
Sasha Waltz tries to solve a problem like Medea

By Angharad Davies
Copyright 2007 Angharad Davies

BERLIN -- Infanticide, mania, vengeance, ferocity and hate: all present and accounted for in Euripides's ancient tragedy about Medea. It's juicy stuff, and Sasha Waltz squeezes enough of these themes into her new production of Pascal Dusapin's 1991 opera "Medeamaterial" to keep her drama-thirsty audience contented. But just barely.

Waltz's "Medea," performed September 18 by Sasha Waltz and Friends with the Akademie fuer Alte Musik, starts off on a promising high note as the Staatsoper's heavy crimson curtain spills to the floor in a crumpled pile, revealing prone bodies. Like the heaving waves of the Aegean Sea, the dancers slowly roll downstage to form a large linked circle, flashes of skin shining in Thilo Reuther's moonlit design. It is a strong image that manages to evoke the blood-steeped essence of the myth itself and the audience is effectively primed for the evening's ruinous end. If you're not familiar with Euripides's play, it goes something like this: Medea is brought by her husband Jason to Corinth, a lovely island in Greece. But she's an outcast there, and Jason soon deserts her and their two children to marry a princess. Never a woman to take such treachery lying down, Medea decides to school Jason in revenge by not only poisoning his new bride, but also offing their two kids in the bargain. In the end, Medea escapes in a borrowed chariot. Curtains down. Applause.

Unfortunately, Waltz's production of the opera, reworked in cooperation with the Akademie fuer Alte Musik and the Vocalconsort Berlin, isn't so clear-cut. Although she manages to get in most of the dramatic elements, the concrete narrative gets lost in the abstract. The choreography tries to fill in most of the blanks where the plot seems to be missing, but it isn't always successful. There is, for example, a lot of air-time between events in the piece, and instead of building suspense, the charged silence makes Dusapin's stark music seem even more heavy-handed. And, it's a shame that over this barren orchestration, the text (written by German playwright Heiner Mueller) seems to sap the energy from Medea's ordeal. Coloratura soprano Caroline Stein gravely sings, "Where is my husband?" While she is outstanding, this restrained text leaves one wondering what happened to Medea, that she-barbarian of notorious and sociopathic tendencies, whose brutal hijinks we all know and love. Instead of fury, we get dispassionate and minimalist material.

As if to make up for these limitations, Waltz counters the desolateness of the music by filling the stage with her large cast (17 dancers and a chorus of 22). The effect should be awe-inspiring, but instead, while the turbulence of the group creates the scene, it also sometimes overwhelms it. Each dancer's swooping, lashing movement vocabulary often becomes lost in the labyrinthine tumult. Of course, in the hands of another choreographer, that might be enough to compel head scratching or even yells of "Boo!," but Waltz comes in with a couple of tricks up her sleeve. Firstly, she sure knows how to pick her dancers. While the images in "Medea" do not always clearly link to the original myth, these world-class performers alone are worth the price of admission. Especially of note is dancer Yael Schnell, whose idiosyncratic embellishments make her character spring into high relief amongst the multitudes. The second skill that Waltz is so adept at is her ability to display surprising theatrical magic that somehow manages to be poignant instead of cheesy. At one point a dancer is garlanded with a string of large white shells. She's like a bobble-headed doll, all wide-eyed, moving with bouncy softness. But her dance gradually becomes wilder and wilder and soon she is air-born and the necklace begins to shatter and crack against her thrashing limbs, releasing a seeping flow of deep ruby-red stage blood that slowly covers her skin. It's an effect that Euripides himself could appreciate.

In the end, Greek tragedies are mostly the same -- they're like a car crash, both sickening and exciting at once, and you can't tear your eyes away as the vehicle spirals down to its doomed end. Throughout "Medea," captivating stage pictures were constructed and disbanded, but it was almost as though Waltz could not settle on one single way to illustrate this ancient tale. Yes, there was blood, death, and glorious dancing -- all the makings of a good night out at the theater. Ultimately, however, the constant shifting of focus diluted the dramatic power of the story. Euripides probably isn't spinning in his grave, but he just might be as indifferent to the overall performance as the rest of us.

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