W by SAMIR CALIXTO at the Theater aan het Spui, The Hague

I remember watching a David Attenborough documentary on television recently about a family of lions. It told the story of a mother with her cubs and her sister, struggling for survival on the parched African plains. Now, the male lion looked very fine and handsome with his flowing mane and loud roar but he wasn’t really doing much; it was the females who did all the work and took all the responsibility for the family’s survival. And it’s not just lions – one of the greatest misnomers must be that women are the weaker sex.

Wagner knew a strong woman, both physically and emotionally, when he saw one and Friedrich Nietzsche, although his views on women were often unclear, was certainly an advocate of releasing the body’s inner strength. It is these two behemoths of nineteenth-century German culture that provided the starting point and motivation for Brazilian choreographer Samir Calixto’s new piece, W, which opened the 2019 CaDance Festival.

As a sequel to, and in contrast with his earlier work, M, W looks at things from a woman’s point of view, taking as one of its inspirations Wagner’s greatest heroine, Isolde. Wagner’s majestic soaring music provides the soundtrack for W’s amazing and breath-taking opening sequence which had my jaw well and truly dropping. The set is basically the interior of a giant off-white box, a very beautiful box of overpowering simplicity, made from hanging linen drapes down to a white floor. Upstage, in the middle of the floor is a box, like a large coffin. Suspended about two meters above is another, identical box. As the lights come up to the soaring strains of Wagner, swirling rivulets of smoke cascade from the top to the bottom box like a smouldering waterfall. The effect was astonishing, made even more so when a woman appeared, in silhouette, lying on the bottom box, slowly writhing or bathing in the smoke.

As the Wagner faded and an evocative soundscape took over, the other four female dancers, all in drab white, took to the stage. Three were in flimsy flowing frocks, two in trousers and torn tops, and to me, the whole piece had very much the feel of a Greek tragedy with echoes of Medea and Euripides’ Trojan Women and I was also put in mind of those grainy old films of Nazi calisthenics, similarly influenced by Nietzsche.

There was another element which was omnipresent. Almost as a throw-away on the back wall of the set was a small splash of what looked like white paint. During the piece one of the dancers smears the white liquid on her bare torso and the climax of W, for which I will not provide a spoiler, involves vast quantities of the liquid which I think by now we could interpret as mothers’ milk.

The majority of W was immaculate and precise ensemble work but each dancer excelled when they had their solos. Camilla Montesi, Xanthe van Opstal, Aya Misaki, Sammie Hermans and Alice De Maio were all stars and danced faultlessly – it would be impossible and unfair to pick one out although, as a teaser, I will say that at the end one of them mercilessly upstages all the others.

The whole thing was exciting and astounding for which Samir Calixto must take most of the credit, although visually, Pavla Beranová’s lighting played a vital role along with his collaboration in the scenography.

Mr Calixto’s Summa was one of the best things I saw last year and I can confidently say that, even though it’s only the middle of January, W may well be the very best performance I see this year. It’ll certainly be a hard act to follow. Brilliant, totally brilliant.   Michael Hasted   26th January 2019

Photo © Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson

W will tour Holland until April

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