The legend of Tristan and Isolde tells the tragic tale of a knight and a princess who are not meant to be together, but who fall in love having inadvertently consumed a love potion. In Wagner’s epic three act opera they find their fervent love inescapable unto death. So how to give form to this profound drama in just 60 minutes? Choreographer Saburo Teshigawara’s answer is to compress it down to the very essence of the protagonists’ relationship, stripping away the excess of narrative to leave merely the pure, vital emotion of the tragedy, and using only extracts of the music as background to its tumultuous theatre.
Teshigawara is internationally renowned for the sculptural quality of his work, and this is evident here from the very opening moments, as the protagonists and their love are physically delineated by light and dark. Astonishing, almost cinematic lighting fragments the space to define them, as both present together yet separate, linked by the fragile ephemerality of shadows and overlapping panels of light. This stunning presentation gives visible form to the extreme intensity of their relationship and visibly draws out the harsh boundaries of their forbidden, unattainable love, simultaneously juxtaposing ideas of enforced distance and craved intimacy. The simple black box set is heavily draped with curtains, which transform under the lamps to evoke columnar solidity and conjure a spectacularly unyielding, epic backdrop, symbolic of their strife.
Both dancers Rihoko Sato and Teshigawara himself are utterly remarkable, as they embody the struggle between restraint and uncontrollable passion with extraordinary performances. There is exquisite economy in every movement, with no single gesture or expression wasted. Their emotion is distilled into powerfully affective drama. They weave tantalisingly around each other with dignity, grace, and astonishing fluidity, never physically touching. We see and feel their anguish as their bodies constantly reach, grasping for an unattainable other, and their energies intermingle in the space between them. Both are older than one might expect, which adds a poignant sense of enduring time to their relationship
In a deeply moving section towards the end of the piece Tristan removes his overcoat, almost caressing it as he lays it on the ground, then carefully folds it and steps into the dark, as if relinquishing his love for Isolde. She in turn engages with the coat, wrapping it around her, dancing in a frenzy of intimate passion; the man who wore it now just an absent shape, a scent; the coat the only contact they have made between them, yet their mutual embrace now virtually palpable. Then she too must move on, and it is deposited into darkness.
This world class performance is part of the Electric Japan festival at the Coronet Theatre, which brings together eclectic cultures and artists to create exciting new works. Here, German language and exceptional music is set beside astonishing physicality that is sometimes reminiscent of Japanese martial arts in its controlled, yet often ferocious delivery. It is a truly exhilarating work that must be seen to be believed.
Choreography, lighting and costume design by: Saburo Teshigawara
Artistic collaborator: Rihoko Sato
Technical coordination by: Sergio Pessanha
Lighting operator: Thomas Leblanc
Produced by: KARAS
Tristan and Isolde plays at Coronet Theatre until 10 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.