Composed around 1688, English composer Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is credited as being one of the very first operas. Based on a story by Virgil it follows the doomed love affair between Dido, queen of Carthage and the Trojan hero, Aeneas. Purcell’s opera takes place on a huge canvas set in Dido’s royal court, a sorcerer’s cave and Carthage harbour and, while maybe it doesn’t have a cast of thousands, there is certainly a lot going on. Samir Calixto manages to convey his take on the story with just two dancers – himself and Erika Poletto.
Brazilian Samir Calixto is well known to Dutch dance aficionados. He spent many years working with the Korzo Theater in The Hague before leaving a couple of years ago to form his own company. This is its first production.
Calixto has used Purcell’s opera in its entirety on which to base his piece but apart from that he did everything himself – choreography, performing and designing. And, daunting though the task may appear, he has accomplished it brilliantly. Visually there is a never ending kaleidoscope of changing light – although much of the action takes place in relative darkness, enhancing the feeling of foreboding. At the back of the stage is a huge screen onto which projections play a greater or less significant part in the proceedings.
Virgil’s story is a familiar one and is basically about love, duty, destiny and how fate takes a hand. Aeneas meets Dido while he is en route to Italy. He feels duty bound to leave Carthage and travel on to fulfill his destiny by founding the city of Rome. Dido, on the other hand, feels her duty to Aeneas trumps that which she owes to her people. Funny thing love. But Calixto sees the story as it relates to us today – hence the title.
The piece starts with a beautiful solo sequence by Italian Erika Poletto wearing a sleek black dress, split to the thigh, and stiletto heels – dancing on which is no mean feat. She is joined by Aeneas who ceremonially removes her shoes and the first act is a rather joyous occasion as love blossoms. Poletto and Calixto are a match made in heaven and their frequent dancing in unison was outstanding. Although a very modern piece, Calixto’s Dido Aeneas Us & All tips its hat very firmly to the baroque but includes lots of other references – there is even a bit of flamenco.
The first act (the acts were announced on the screen) was, although involving some excellent dancing, fairly straightforward. The real drama started with Act II with stormy projections and thunderous soundscape to augment to the music. A giant eclipse of the moon was projected onto the stage as smoke swirled around. All very dark and mysterious.
The culmination of Dido Aeneas Us & All finds the two dancers virtually naked and blindfolded as the story reaches its dénouement when love, duty and destiny collide and Dido fails to survive. The final sequence as Dido is carried shoulder high into the projected stormy sky to join the gods worked brilliantly to the strains of When I am Laid to Earth when she vows they will never, never part.
Dido Aeneas Us & All is more than an outstanding piece of dance – it is powerful drama and exciting theatre and bodes well for Samir Calixto and his new company.
As we all know, love is a funny thing with the ability to create the greatest joy and the greatest sorrow, as Dido and Aeneas discovered only too well. We all have our destinies and we all have our duties – sometimes not pleasant and sometimes not fulfilled – but inescapable nonetheless. And we all, most of us at least, find love in one form or another. What form that love takes, how it manifests itself and how it culminates is unpredictable – and the endings aren’t always happy. Michael Hasted at Theatre Rotterdam 11th March 2022
Photo by Peter Janssen
List to the ArtsTalk Radio interview with Samir (at 6.30 mins)