Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sydney Festival in Review: "Dido and Aeneas" Sasha Waltz & Guests

Just like the friendly volunteer survey-gal was, I was shocked that this was my first year going to the Sydney Festival! I honestly had never heard of it before this year (I guess I live under a rock) so, inspired by my extremely cool gig-going friend Flora I decided to get as into it as I could, on a shoestring of course.

Photo credit. (And a taste of the reviews from the newspapers).

I'm writing this review not as a professional, or as someone seeming to be in-the-know, but as a member of the general public with a keen interest in music and art.

The production of Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas by Sasha Waltz including underwater choreography was one of the festival shows that I really wanted to see and resulted in me waiting in line for an hour and a half to get cheap tickets on the day of the final show (yesterday). The tickets were really good, considering the price and late sale, and we (my boyfriend and I) were in the second row from the front. I was really pleased to be seated so close to the orchestra because I had seen them previously in their own concert and they were exceptional, but was a little dubious about how we would be experiencing the show as a whole: considering the balance of orchestra vs vocals. The publicity for the show was excellent as the above advertising image was definitely what had me longing to go. I was intrigued by how the underwater choreography would work and anticipating the fluidity of water to aid a fluidity of movement to result in something beautiful.

The show began with some confusing exchange of dialogue between what appeared to be actors atop the big tank. I couldn't understand what they were saying and had a futile search around the stage for some surtitles. I tried my best to focus on what they were saying and watch their lips to grasp the words better but in the end I gave up, wanting to watch the movement that had started in the tank. The underwater dancing was beautiful albeit completely disconnected from the music of Purcell that was being played so truly by the Akadamie für Alte Musik Berlin. There was one moment where a movement change in the orchestra was reflected in more upbeat movements of lower-half bodies in the tank, but this was the only time in the entirety of the show when I felt there was almost a successful connection between the two. I will continue to call it a "show" rather than an opera because it ceased to be so and became an exhibition of dance concepts with music there. I continued to be mesmerised at the movements of the dancers, twisting, tumbling and sometimes fish-like in the water, but as more narration occurred by the people atop the tank and a teapot and cup were added into the mix, I had no idea what was going on. As the water level started to dwindle in the tank I realised that this wasn't the feature of the show, and it was merely a prologue. I felt a little jipped. I wanted, and was expecting, a narration of opera through movement in water rather than a brief and no doubt costly prologue to the story. The tank, having served it's purpose, was dutifully wheeled out on the backdrop of complete darkness and silence. That is, until the tank came across a big bump it had to overcome before getting off-stage, resulting in a back and forth movement that was repeated as all the wheels passed over it. Any atmosphere Waltz had wished to create with her prologue was effectively dissipated.

The rest of the show was comprised of modern dance. I enjoyed a lot of the movement and different sections individually, but as a whole they missed the point. Reading reviews afterwards apparently there were two dancers symbolising each Dido and Aeneas, something which was completely lost on me. To me it was just lots of people dancing on the stage, some taking it in turns: pas de deux, pas de trois, solos.. There was no narrative through the dance; merely modern dance for the sake of modern dance, conjuring up the concept of modern art as a few splatters on a blank canvas. It was beautiful for the most part but without a sense of meaning or narrative it became tedious and at some points in the show I was even thinking "when will this end..".

As well as two dancers per main character there was the singer, meaning three people acting the one part making for a confusing mix of who's who and what's what. It was clear who of the singers were Dido and Aeneas but whoever could make sense of the dancers is more intelligent than me (apparently they were colour-coded). The opera is in English but this doesn't mean that audience will be able to understand. I found the diction in the male singing was relatively easy to discern whereas the females were harder to understand. I don't believe that it's imperative to understand every single word that's being sung because some vowels change with a necessity to achieve a beautiful tone at a certain pitch. I enjoyed the tone of Dido very much and thought she did an extraordinary job in the large space that is the Lyric Theatre. The voices of the secondary characters didn't do as well, but this is perhaps because I was so close to the orchestra and couldn't get a true perception of the balance. I applaud the Vocal Consort Berlin for taking on the arduous choreography, getting down to their underpants, and singing from awkward positions sprawled along the floor of the stage.

All in all there was a large mix of chorus and dancers on stage much of the time and it was incredibly difficult to understand the meaning behind everything. The chorus was dancing (which, as I said before, I applaud them for their tenacity and courage) but this served to create an overall scene on stage that was unrefined. Many of the dancers left me asking if they were even dancers due to badly coordinated movements, perhaps this was clumsy choreography. There was a lack of unity in form and movement and in general it was a higgledy-piggledy, mis-matched mess that looked like an amateur group. Scenes I did enjoy included all the bodies on the floor rolling side to side creating an effect like the sea while a singer walked through, and when Dido and Aeneas were reaching for each other and being pulled away.

In reading reviews in some of Sydney's major publications, I realised the symbolism of the fish-tank: allowing the context of the male lead arriving by sea, and the scene where Dido looks to be drowning in her hair, but the main concern I have is that I would not have been able to make this connection whilst watching. Although Dido and Aeneas is a well-known opera, many of the festival-goers would not be familiar with the story. I don't think it should be compulsory that one reads a detailed synopsis of an opera before attending; I liken this to going to see a movie which you've already read the complete plot beforehand. Opera is the stuff that happened before movies and needs to be discovered in the moment. That's why I thought the exclusion of surtitles greatly diminished the effectiveness of this work on the audience.

It is my belief that art should be approachable to all. Many say that classical music is elitist but it is our (me being part of the professional classical world) fault for allowing it to continue this way. Anyone should be able to go to an art gallery and understand the artist's work without intimately knowing the artist, or be able to draw their own meaning from it. This production of Dido and Aeneas was so incoherent and mish-mashed that I couldn't even imagine and create my own story to go along with it. The dance sequences, thought beautiful and interesting in themselves, were fractured as a whole and were impossible to piece together into an overarching form of narrative. Opera is the telling of a story, through music, and was played and sung brilliantly here by the Akadamie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Vocal Consort Berlin, but was let down by the over-looking of the importance of creating a cohesive whole between music and dance. The dance itself was unrefined, lacked unity and coordination, and resembled a group of amateur middle-aged people doing their best. Sasha Waltz has presented a disjointed performance, one where the music could have been a work in it's own without the dance, and vice versa, so separate were the two. I'm glad I didn't pay the full ticket price to see this.

Did you see the show too? Feel free to comment below.

1 comment:

  1. wish i'd gone to more Syd Festival events! Will there be a valentine's day post this year Nicole? I'm thinking of making heart-shaped biscuits #singlescelebrate

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