Exploring the forms

About Sasha Waltz and »Dido & Aeneas«

Article by Dr. Jonas Kellermann

Sasha Waltz is one of the most important contemporary choreographers. She successfully continued the heritage of expressive and modern dance, which is so firmly rooted in Germany, on the international stage while questioning and renewing it through the influences of post-modern dance. Never satisfied with the status quo, she tries to find new ways of negotiating between dance and space again and again. Whether full-length dance pieces or performative inaugurations of buildings such as the Neues Museum in Berlin in 2009 or the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg in 2017: Sasha Waltz explores both the physical forms of dance and the spatial structures of architecture and allows both sides to enter into a profoundly emotional dialogue with each other, as a look at her creative history reveals.

Her Berlin-based company, Sasha Waltz & Guests (1993 with Jochen Sandig), found one of its first performance venues in the Sophiensälen (1996). Early pieces such as the »Travelogue Trilogy« (1993-95) or »Allee der Kosmonauten« (1996) are characterised by an almost slapstick-like situation comedy intelligently depicting the absurdities and tragedies of everyday life. An aesthetic she later turned away from after being part of the management of Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in 1999, with the cycle of works »Körper« (2000), »S« (2000) and »noBody« (2002) that were created there. Her pieces now take on a much more abstract and thoughtful tone. Situational comedy is replaced by existential questions about human desire, life and death. The architecture of the Schaubühne, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, allowed Waltz to add an additional visual level in an almost sculptural manner, e.g. the wall in »Körper« or the cloud in »noBody«. However, stage sets and costumes do not serve as mere decoration in Sasha Waltz's work. Still, they are always an integral part of her dramaturgy, often used by the dancers. A working method that continues today, as can be seen in the avant-garde costumes by Iris van Herpen for »Kreatur« (2017) or most recently on the wall in »SYM-PHONIE MMXX« (2022).
Both aesthetics meet in Sasha Waltz's »Dido & Aeneas«. In this production, the playfulness of earlier works meet the existentialism of the Schaubühne aesthetic, vividly realising the musical and emotional richness of Henry Purcell's baroque opera. While some moments of the third act, such as Dido's moving lament »When I am laid in earth«, recall the melancholy of »noBody«, – the humorous lightness of her early works resonates in the ballet lesson at the end of the first act. Also, with the giant aquarium right at the beginning of the prologue, there is an almost iconic stage set that not only immerses the audience in the mythical world of Virgil but also visually anticipates how the various arts will flow together in Sasha Waltz's production.

At the same time, however, »Dido & Aeneas« is also characterised by a particular uniqueness. Premiered in 2005 at the Grand Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg and seen shortly afterwards at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Sasha Waltz's first opera production, with which she established her particular form of musical theatre, the choreographic opera. The production was preceded by her choreography of Franz Schubert's »Impromptus« at the Schaubühne in 2004. Therefore Waltz worked with classical music for the first time as a preparatory study for »Dido & Aeneas«. The preparation for Dido ultimately culminates in a production of the Purcell opera that deliberately erases the long-lived institutional separation between song and dance. All ensemble members become part of one large theatrical body that tells the tragic love story in both singing and dancing ways. This effort of bringing together song and dance within the framework of opera is continued by Waltz in the following years in a series of musically highly diverse productions ranging from the French Romanticism of Hector Berlioz to Richard Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerke and the contemporary operas of Pascal Dusapin. Common to all these creations is the desire to build an expressive bridge across the traditional divides between music, song, and dance. "Dido & Aeneas" is an example of the freedom that opens up when the long-held boundaries between the art forms are blurred. These free spaces make it not only a quintessential choreographic opera but also an outstanding work by Sasha Waltz.

Image © André Rival