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Mourning at full throttle

Sasha Waltz stages Pascal Dusapin's "Medea" opera in Luxembourg. By Christiane Peitz

Medea, again, already. The child-killer. The monster. The barbarian. This material enjoys a certain currency, albeit in ways one would prefer not to dwell on. There was Monika Weimar, Hessen's infanticide of the mid-90s. And Daniela J. of Frankfurt/Oder, 23 years old, who in 1999 allowed her two children to die of thirst. And Sabine H., whose nine dead infants, hastily interred in flower boxes, were discovered in 2005 in the village of Brieskow-Finkenheerd. And, of course, the Berlin mother (report in German) who recently made the headlines for abandoning her children to their own devices for months on end.

All photos © Sebastian Bolesch, courtesy Grand Theatre de la Ville de Luxembourg

Mothers who neglect, mistreat, or murder their own offspring. Unthinkable. Yet undeniably, it does happen. But is it possible to tell these stories without indulging in lurid sensationalism? Can this reality be tackled by drawing upon the Classical myth of the mother who kills out of jealousy, on Euripides, or on Heiner Müller's "Medea material"? On Christa Wolf's reinterpretation of Medea as the scapegoat of a xenophobic society? Does such a woman not burst the boundaries of any stage?

Giving it a try now - in the wake of Nina Hoss' portrayal of Medea at the Deutsches Theater - is Sasha Waltz. Originally this project, put on in collaboration with the Akademie für Alte Musik and the Vocalconsort Berlin, planned to use Luigi Cherubini's late 18th-century opera, based on Classical sources. But the Berlin choreographer then decided in favour of Pascal Dusapin's 1991 "Medea" opera, based on Müller's text. An evening consisting entirely of new music: a novelty for the early music ensemble. It is also more despairing, bloody, abyssal. Although Dusapin omitted the "Landscape with Argonauts" which Müller conjoined with his "Medea" monologue, the playwright's now legendary coarsened tone nonetheless continues to resonate powerfully in his version of the myth. Including the drastic language of Müller's reference to the prefab apartment blocks which provided the settings for numerous recent child murders as "fuck cubicles with central heating." Does Waltz take up the tone?

This dance and musical theatre production was premiered in Luxembourg's Grand Theatre in the framework of the programme of European Cultural Capitals. Then it will come to Berlin's Staatsoper in September, where it will provide the upbeat to an interdisciplinary "Medeamorphosen" festival in the Radialsystem V performance space. A proven partnership: two years ago, Waltz's first operatic effort, her enchanting production of Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas" travelled from Luxembourg to Berlin's opera house on Unter den Linden, where it has enjoyed cult status ever since.

Jason's wife, a foreigner from Kolchis, in Corinthian exile. Homeless, driven out, an alien. Corinth as Luxembourg: a nice fit. During its stint as this year's European Cultural Capital, this tiny, financially potent grand duchy, with its banking metropolis, 61 percent of its inhabitants of foreign origin, is calling attention to its identity as a host country, and to the thousand-year history of migration into Luxembourg and the surrounding region. And another through pass: Laszlo Sandig, as one reads beforehand, appears as Medea's third child. The 10-year-old boy is Sasha Waltz' own son. This "Medea" requires daring. It begins in silence. The stage is black and bare, and will remain so to the end. Piano, piano: a tone flits through the hall, a snaking form composed of human forms makes its way forward, winds into a circle, breaks apart. Dancers in black and earth-toned costumes (every other one wearing a pleated skirt) compose pyramids, multi-limbed, sculptures modelled only by light, figurations resembling Laocoon, before they creep away again, wormlike.

Robotic sign language, mechanically synchronized pantomime, alternately waving bodies, mourning processions, escape routes. The caravan draws ever onward – all of it familiar from Waltz's company. Enjoyable enough, even if one looks on now with a hint of fatigue.

Enter Medea, played by coloratura soprano Caroline Stein in Callas garb. Callas! Pasolini! Revenge in Greek! To be sure, Stein hurls enraged lightning bolts against Dusapin's distinctive minor thirds, bathed in dissonances and microintervals, against a carpet of sound woven haltingly by the superb musicians and singers (who, as in "Dido", mingle themselves among the dancers) from repetitions, silences and trancelike ostinati. She deracinates Müller's words, driving her hatred of her faithless husband – "All of me your tool" – to fever pitch, along with her toxic hysteria against her rival, and her despair in the face of Jason's brood, her own "children of betrayal", and "flesh of her heart". Still, Waltz fails to an invent an image capable of doing justice to this outcry, for the extremity of these emotions, ranging between ecstasy and shock.

The spirit races along, but the dancing is in slow motion. The murder of Medea's rival Glauce, the poisoned dress: a thin layer of material is draped around a lovely nude, a chain of bird's eggs breaks apart, ochre-red paint is smeared around. As though the act were a mere trifle. One might have also condensed symbolic action into ritual, conjured the inconceivable. And the murdering mother?

At some point, the two dancing children lay themselves down on the floor while Medea mourns at full throttle. Unquestionably, the choreographer cultivates a certain reticence in the face of her subject, refuses all speculation. Waltz is playful, melancholic, a friend to humanity: she shrinks back in the face of Medea.

In the course of the evening, just 75 minutes long, two moments offer some sense of the potential contained in her approach to "Medea". A stone frieze with antique figural groups, projected onto the stage wall, evokes the era of mythology; in March, Waltz's ensemble initially presented excerpts of her "Medea" in front of Berlin's Pergamon Altar. In Luxembourg, the frieze comes to life, as the dancers embodying the relief, the stone, begins to move. A fantastic moment in the visualization of dead history, the becoming-conscious of an archaic unconscious. Also cited is the underwater frieze at the beginning of "Dido & Aeneas", that Cinemascope aquarium of nautical-erotic passion. Once upon a time, the infant killer was happily in love.

Finally, droning fans placed at the sides provide an earsplitting whirlwind. The wind machine destroys all choreographic order. Save yourself if you can, here comes Medea, bride of the wind, to rob us of our composure. If only temporarily.

German premiere: 16 September in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.


The article originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel on May 25, 2007.

Christiane Peitz is head of the cultural section at Der Tagesspiegel.

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european