If you close your eyes and listen to Handels’ music with attention you will see images. If you remain open and stand in a responsive space the music will find a way to move you. The feet may initiate, or the hands, and the rest of the body will follow. Shapes are born and transitions present themselves and as one shape segues into the next, phrases are made. The initial movements are like letters and when joined make words. The words quickly become sentences. If you are clear in advance about the rules of engagement, (simple, harmonious, musical,) the choreography created will have integrity and a style of its own.
Many of Handel’s arias are built around simple dance rhythms. They are also often built around an internal conversation - a soliloquy or a prayer to a deity, zephyr or spirit. The fact that there are only two duets in three hours of singing is not without significance. Sesto invokes the furies. Cleopatra prays to Venus. Caesar sings to the Zephyrs, Cornelia refers to the ‘God’s relenting,’ and even Achilla calls to the Gods. The presence of the unseen world in Julius Caesar is all the more important as there is a direct relationship between these unseen mythological realities and each character’s psychological disposition, either conscious or unconscious. The recits, which drive the action onwards and precede each aria, nearly always result in a character being dropped into an ocean of profound hope or fear.
Although Christian Curnyn and I have greatly reduced the amount of recit in this production, I have attempted to replace anything we have cut with an image or an action. Actions speak louder than words, and images speak a thousand words.
The dances I have made reflect the yearning of the characters to connect with the universal and express each of the characters attempt to find resolution, and end their suffering. It’s this struggle that creates the movements. I want this. I can’t have this. I will do this to get what I want. If I don’t get what I want I will do this and so on and on. Action is never without a cause and if we are not careful every action we make creates another cause. As a choreographer or director one is vulnerable to making the mistake of adding too many extra elements to what Handel has given us when in fact all that is necessary is to thoroughly excavate what is already there and simply allow its implicit power to emerge.
Sesto compares herself to a wounded vengeful serpent. Handel has written wonderful music to support this; the dance I have made reflects the music more than the theatrical image. Showing and telling is never a good thing. It would be a mistake, for example to create a figurative serpent dance. It is much more interesting to allow the fluidity and speed with which a serpent moves to influence the choreography. Adding ice cream to cream already on a slice of apple tart will smother any taste of apple. The object here is to allow the music to evoke an image and create a dance that is in empathy with that image, a dance that sits so well with the rhythm and tonicity of the music that it does not in any way interfere with it but instead allows something else to surface, something entirely itself, something entirely new. In this way when singing of a certain quality meets dancing of a certain quality a third thing is created. It is this third thing, this other thing that is of most interest to me.
I have always thought it that if singers were expected to move in the opera then the dancers should be expected to sing. On reflection this dogmatic principle is perhaps too rigid. What has become clear is that the singers must be free to entirely commit to their singing and the dancers to their dancing.
When these arias are sung clearly in a space that supports the singer, (an intelligently designed space that supports the sound being made) its implicit magic comes through with such force that on occasion its beauty is unbearable. Wherever possible I encouraged the singers to relax their faces, keep their hands free of tension and to focus on the words, usually a simple, repeated phrase expressing a need or want or desire. I have always found that the repetition in Handel’s Da Capo form creates a wonderful intensity and although the words are repeated they never seem to mean the same thing twice. Like an incantation, it is only truly transformative when the attention of the practitioner is uninterrupted - in order to tap something deeper there can be no distractions. In the world of Handel’s Julius Caesar, the aria is the mantra and its power can only truly find expression if the singer’s attention is unbroken, the shape of their body free from distortion and the space in which they stand is properly focused
In this opera all of the characters are changed by actions taken to pursue their needs. Cornelia wants vengeance for her husband’s murder, as does her daughter Sesto. Caesar wants to be united with his love, Cleopatra. Ptolemy wants to remain King of Egypt and will do want ever is necessary to achieve this. Cleopatra wants Ptolemy dead, to be queen of Egypt and in the process of attempting this, falls in love with Caesar. It is clear to me that Handel was conscious of how even the finest, most gifted and powerful people in the world are helpless when overcome by their desire. It is this desire, which is at the root of their suffering and it is through their suffering that they change either by dying, by loosing their innocence as with Sesto or by becoming wiser.
The last lines of the opera are, ‘let us all unite in love and joy,’ it is only through all the violence, vengeance, torture and murdering that the central characters can learn to see the eternal value of unity, love and joy. We suffer and suffer until finally we become still enough, quiet enough, refined enough for our eyes to open and finally understand that the idea that we are isolated is an illusion and allow ourselves to surrender to the universal power of unity, love and joy.
Michael Keegan-Dolan, October 2012