Sasha Waltz’s production of Dido and Aeneas is a feast of sound and spectacle – that is continually scuppered by its dramatic incoherence. In this large-scale piece Waltz’s company combines forces with the Berlin Academy of Ancient Music and the Berlin Vocalconsort, both specialists in baroque music. Purcell’s music is well known, and sounds especially ravishing here, with an orchestra that includes lutes and viols.
But this is a theatre production not a music concert, and it is on the stage that both the most tantalising images and the biggest disappointments are found. In the opening scene, the set is dominated by a vast water tank, a giant aquarium into which the dancers plunge, slipping under and over like human dolphins. It is a striking, gloriously extravagant conceit – always the focus of publicity photos, and media previews – and its bold imagery and sensuality promised a rich and unusual telling of the story.
In fact, the riches we get are all in the imagery and sensation; the story itself is almost completely submerged. The solo singers, playing the main characters, are doubled by dancers – a device that’s been successfully used before, and which for the most part works in this production too (though Dido is, confusingly, matched by two dancers, not one). The chorus of singers is also integrated into the action, often joining with the dancers in clustering groups and ragged lines – and again this works well, Waltz choreographing the two groups just enough to make them all part of the action while not accentuating their differences.
But although there is evidently some sequence to the story, we can’t follow it. Each episode has a different style – of movement, of costume, of ambience – and there are almost no pointers as to the whys and wherefores of these many changes. And without an idea about what’s happening, we don’t engage with the characters or their feelings, despite the evident emotion in the music.
as sexual and as unerotic as a beachful of mating molluscs
What we get, instead, is a series of disjointed episodes, some captivating, others not. There is a beautifully rendered scene where the company dress and cross-dress in elaborate, courtly costumes, ending up bunched together and throwing bits of clothing high into the air to form a splashy fountain of tunics, bodices and trimmings. There’s an odd natural-history moment in which the dancers clump in pairs on the floor, as sexual and as unerotic as a beachful of mating molluscs. There are a couple of tableaux where the dancers, suspended from a kind of giant see-sawing bungee, take to the air like circling gulls. And there are incidents which, even more than these, seem pulled out of nowhere: a flouncey dance teacher imperiously instructing his students; a woman plucking a shuttlecock from her decolletage; some of the chorus wearing wellington boots; a long twisting male solo that winds about the stage, to no discernible purpose.
If Waltz wanted to convey the story, these scenes are not the medium of its telling. It’s as if Waltz has used episodes of Dido and Aeneas as separate starting points for differently imagined scenarios – and we, the audience, simply cannot discern the thread that connects them them. The result is a production that always sounds and looks good, but has rather literally lost the plot.