Tale of Witchcraft Told in Dance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Albicastro, Albinoni, Tartini, Valentini, Vivaldi, Witch-hunt (Hexenhatz): Bern Ballett, Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 22.5.2013. (JO’D)

Anna Göldi: Clemmie Sveaas
Dr. Johann Tschudi: Franklyn Lee
Elisabeth Tschudi: Martina Langmann
Annamiggeli Tschudi (as a child): Paula Alonso

Choreography: Cathy Marston
Scenario: Cathy Marston and Edward Kemp
Set designs: Jann Messerli
Light Design: Bernhard Bieri
Costume designs: Catherine Voeffray
Text: Edward Kemp

On to the darkened stage at the beginning of the piece, figures in white emerge. They advance with slow, repeated movements in a way not dissimilar to that of the Shades in the second act of La Bayadère. The hypnotic, dream-like quality of that ballet is one that this intelligent and deeply felt ballet shares. For rather than telling the story of Anna Göldi, a woman executed in Switzerland in 1782 for putting a curse on the daughter of the family for whom she worked as a maid, Witch-hunt remembers it (in several, importantly differing versions) through the eyes and voice of Annamiggeli Tschudi, the girl she was accused of having bewitched.

The figures in white, who at first are all expertly balancing glasses of milk on the back of one hand (the significance of which is made clear later on), reveal themselves to be the staff of the asylum in which the now adult and straitjacketed Annamiggeli is confined. ‘I was eight. I was a child,’ she says when she begins to speak, as if to explain to the audience, and to herself, the part she played in the events that led to Anna Göldi’s death. The staff now take on the roles of Annamiggeli’s parents, her younger self, the maid Anna and the people of the community in which the family lived as this troubled woman uses memory to discover the ‘truth’ of what happened. With each remembered version, Annamiggeli sees the events from a different perspective (her mother’s, her father’s, Anna’s). Over the course of the piece, the audience’s own memory is jogged by the carefully repeated choreography; it therefore actively engages in the process of remembering.

The relationship of the girl and the maid is central. Paula Alonso shows the confused and lonely child seeking affection; Clemmie Sveaas displays a warmth that can provide it. A pas de deux between them that is both innovative and moving (the latter increasingly so as it is repeated) expresses the happiest aspects of this relationship. The music, recorded works by 18th century composers, places the piece in its period setting. (‘Summer’ and ‘Autumn’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons sound fresh and new, almost as if heard for the first time, when used as the background to Cathy Marston’s choreography). The words spoken by the adult Annamiggeli (Mona Kloos) mostly add to the dancing, but there are one or two moments when they jar. ‘Mother never liked Anna’ she says, as if that had not been made perfectly clear from the outset (and the way she says it makes it sound as if the whole thing were simply a question of the servant problem). She also disparagingly refers to several concepts, one of them Justice, as ‘men’s things’ (which prompts one to ask, ‘Is justice a man’s thing?’). These are only moments, though. For the most part her monologue is carefully measured and effectively employed. ‘Like a mother’ she says as she cradles the dead Anna in her arms at the end. And then she repeats it in her mother tongue: ‘Wie eine Mutter.’ The sense of sadness and loss felt when the figures in white retreat into darkness is one at least of which Annamigelli and the audience now have a better understanding.

John O’Dwyer