With ballet companies often being based at opera houses, and often featuring in operas themselves, one would assume that dance and opera go hand in hand. However, it’s not quite that simple. Often, ballet – and more rarely contemporary dance – in opera plays second fiddle (if you’ll pardon the pun), and is restricted to a mere few scenes rather than being inextricably linked to the action, at least that’s what I felt on numerous occasions, including at Wagner’s Tannhauser with choreography by Jasmin Vardimon at London’s Royal Opera House back in 2016, and at Les Vêpres Siciliennes in 2017 again at the Royal Opera. But after two experiences of seeing dance and music as disparate entities, 2018 introduced me to a new approach to dance in the operatic setting, as I had the pleasure of seeing Sasha Waltz’s Orfeo, which was performed in collaboration with the Vocalconsort Berlin and Freiburger Barockconsort at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden.
The celebrated German choreographer embraces Montiverdi’s famed score with modern flair, so that the retelling of the classic Greek myth – Orpheus travelling down to the underworld in the attempt to retrieve his beloved Eurydice – becomes an atmospheric multi-disciplinary adventure. The performance begins with the orchestra on stage – a welcome departure from them being hidden away in the pit – and a lone female dancer in a long dusty blue dress initiates the action with a motif of fluid motions that look like a wave tumbling through her body. Her opening of the production sets a president that dance and music will be inseparable throughout. In fact, Orfeo’s greatest success is that there are many times when you can’t distinguish the singers from the dancers, as in an inspiring display of skills sharing the cast each embrace each other’s art forms. This is most evident in scenes such as the dance of the nymphs who celebrate the union of Orpheus and Eurydice. Everyone skips joyously, interweaving through each other, interlocking arms in choreography reminiscent of folk dance. They then begin to perform a peculiar angular jig, with many bent limbs and cupped hands reminding us that we are firmly in the realms of experimental, contemporary dance rather than classical ballet.
Kudos must also be given to Waltz for the way she embraces the innovative set designed by Alexander Schwarz. Comprising of moveable wooden panels, Schwarz’s creation cleverly establishes two worlds (the mortal world and underworld) which characters can move between. Other elements are introduced to the stage, including eerie, misty projections, which at times display shadows and silhouettes of dancers in the distance, appearing like lost souls trapped in Pluto’s dark domain. There are also two pools of water either side of the stage, which effectively symbolise the River Styx, as the performer playing Charon, the ferryman of hell, wades through them, the sound of his feet running through the water contributing to the already impeccable (thanks to the talent of the Vocalconsort Berlin and the Freiburger Barockconsort) soundscape of the performance.
Reviewed at Staatsoper Unter Den Linden on 18th November