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Juilliard Dance

Published: June 20, 2012
Category: review

Dido & Aeneas, a "Choreographic Opera"

By Rachel Straus

BERLIN — The story of Dido & Aeneas has long been popular among contemporary choreographers. In 1989, Mark Morris created his Dido and Aeneas to Purcell’s late 17th-century opera. In 1999, Pina Bausch’s O Dido employed nothing of the opera score, but incorporated the myth’s water imagery. Choreographer Sasha Waltz calls her 2005 Dido & Aeneas, viewed June 7 at Berlin’s Schiller Theater, a “choreographic opera.” Originally a coproduction among the Staatsoper and opera companies in Luxembourg and Montpellier, this Dido brings together 13 dancers (most of whom belong to Waltz’s 19-year-old Berlin company), the ten singers of the Vocalconsort Berlin, and the excellent Academie Für Alte Musik Berlin, all under conductor Attilio Cremonesi, who also had a hand in arranging the score for this production.

“I don’t want the story told only through the singers, but also through images and gestures, through the unique language of dance,” Waltz is quoted as saying in the program book. Waltz shares with Morris and Bausch an interest in making total artworks. But because she has the singers dance, her movement is basic, so the choreography never lifts off the ground. Furthermore, trying to distinguish which performer in the 23-member ensemble represented which character was nearly impossible. There were two Aeneases (baritone Reuben Willcox and dancer Virgis Puodziunas) three Didos (mezzo-soprano Aurore Ugolin and dancers Yael Schnell and Michal Mualem), plus two Belindas and four Sorceresses. Halfway through the production, this reviewer gave up the identity game and decided to focus on the beauty of the moving images.

The fishtank

The first image, in the prologue (which does not use the original score but an interpolated Purcell piece) is the most arresting. An oblong fish tank, spanning nearly the entire width of the stage, is raised on industrial supports five feet off the floor. The performers climb to the top of the tank via a ladder to gaze and point at the audience. As Cremonesi raises his baton, a dancer plunges into the illuminated water. He becomes a fish and is joined by a woman who, dressed in a diaphanous white tunic, looks like a nymph. Later I found an interview in which Waltz explains that the tank is supposed to represent Aeneas’ departure from his native Troy. Who knew?

(A quick review of the plot: Dido, queen of Carthage, falls in love with the shipwrecked Aeneas, whose destiny is to found Rome. When he leaves Carthage to do so, Dido is heartbroken and takes her life. In between witches, gods, sailors, nymphs, and courtiers shape the course of their doomed love.)

After the prologue, the tank is rolled off stage, but Waltz’s movement vocabulary for the rest of the piece is a continuation of the smooth, slow, languid strokes, reminiscent of the swimming dancers. Like Trisha Brown’s, Waltz’s choreography often stems from arm gestures that suffuse the entire body. Since they are frequently performed in sustained legato here, they eventually become monotonous.

Reuben Willcox, Virgis Puodziunas, Michal Mualem

The second most arresting image occurs in the fourth act. Two columns of ten performers each resemble strings of seaweed: One is headed by a Dido dancer, the other by an Aeneas dancer, and the two lines waft back and forth as if moved by ocean currents. As Aeneas (Virgis Puodziunas, the most captivating of the dancers) is slowly lifted off the floor by his fellow performers, he floats toward and away from Dido (Michal Mualem). The rest of the standing cast responds by echoing the lovers’ attempt to touch each other. Speaking through movement is an oft-alluded goal in dance; in this case, Waltz succeeds in expressing the longing between Dido in Carthage and Aeneas in Rome.

The orgy

Waltz’s Dido also traffics in absurdist moments. In Act 2, Dido’s court holds a party. The dancers are costumed (designs by Christine Birkle) like the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland. Besides the stiff ruffles and fanciful hats, their props are especially gay (there’s an inflatable dolphin). When the cast assembles for a group portrait, the men in drag look especially pleased. Then an orgy begins. Clothes fly off and land on singers representing Dido and Aeneas, standing inert. Waltz, like Purcell, must be saying something about the burden of leadership. Then again, connecting the story to the stage events in Waltz’s Dido & Aeneas felt like a burden.

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