Clemmie Sveass and Franklyn Lee in Hexenhatz. Photo Philipp Zinniker

Clemmie Sveass and Franklyn Lee in Hexenhatz. Photo Philipp Zinniker

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; May 22, 2013

David Mead

Six years have passed since Marston’s “Firebird”, her debut work as ballet director in Bern. Differences over artistic direction with new Konzert Theater director, Stephan Märki, have been instrumental in leading to a parting of the ways at the end of this season. “Witch-hunt”, or “Hexenhatz” to give it its rather more evocative German title, is some going away piece, though. It is not often that a work hits you so hard that you are still about it and the issues it raises days afterwards, but that is what happened here.

As she tells the story of Anna Göldi, the last person in Europe executed for witchcraft, Marston raises some important questions. More and more we read of people or governments today apologising for the actions of people past, sometimes people in the distant past. There are calls for those convicted of crimes, sometimes of things that were crimes at the time but that are no longer so, to be pardoned. We judge yesterday’s events only in today’s context. But as the adult Annamiggeli Tschudi, portrayed here to startling effect by actress Mona Kloos, tells us as she sits in a bleak asylum, “You can’t undo what has been done. The dead are done.”

Annamiggeli died in 1810 in the Polish Ukraine, but 79 years earlier, aged just eight, she was allegedly bewitched by Anna, the family maid. The family had previously discovered needles in their daughter’s milk, and believing that Anna was responsible, dismissed her. Soon afterwards, the youngster began vomiting needles and became lame. The maid was hunted down and told to cure the girl. She did manage to improve Annamiggeli’s condition, but her success was taken as proof of guilt and was also to be her death sentence.

Five years ago, Anna was officially exonerated. Now there are books, a film, and a museum about her, and a human rights prize carries her name. But if she was innocent, what does that make the other players in the story? Does that make Annamiggeli guilty, at the very least of false testimony? But can an eight-year old really be considered as such? If so, why did she do it? And what of the rest of her family and the people of Glarus where they lived?

In Marston’s dance drama, the grown-up and straightjacketed Annamiggeli is haunted by her past and tries to reconcile what happened. Often seen with incriminating glass of milk in hand, her thoughts and events are illustrated by the dancers. Far from getting in the way of the dance, Edward Kemp’s monologue adds layers of meaning and is employed effectively. The confusion and pain in Annamiggeli’s mind is clear for all to see, and given added force when exclamations are repeated in English, and then most powerfully in German.

Marston takes us through the girl’s memories three times, presenting events from her mother’s, her father’s and Anna’s viewpoints, each time cleverly making connections through repeated selections from the choreography. With each telling, Marston digs deeper and slowly edges towards, as she sees it, the family’s hidden secret that lies at the heart of events: the relationship between Dr. Johann Tschudi, Annamiggeli’s father, and Anna.

Clemmie Sveaas was forceful as Anna, presented as the only innocent in the story. She is bright and loose-limbed, in contrast to the rest of the family, especially the cold, neurotic, unlovable and unloving mother, danced by Martina Langmann. Paula Alonso was convincing as the lonely child seeking affection. During her dance she frequently freezes in a foetal position. A duet with Sveaas is happy and moving.

Scenes slowly gain in intensity. The final relating of events includes a powerful duet between Anna and the Annamiggeli’s father that illustrates well their erotic relationship. The dance here is breathless, energetic and free. When the youngster finds out about the affair, it is easy to understand how she could see it wrecking the family, and why she should set out to destroy the maid. “She was not one of us,” the adult Annamiggeli says in justification.

The ensemble take on the roles of asylum staff, the rest of the family and the people of the community as Annamiggeli seeks the truth, or at least her truth, of what happened. In contrast to the lead characters, their choreography is always formal, and occasionally even militaristic.

Scenes are illuminated beautifully. The dance space is defined by Jann Messerli’s simple yet ingenious metal framework set that is moved by the dancers to represent asylum, home or town. Equally potent are noted Swiss dance designer Catherine Voeffray’s white costumes that add to the timeless air. They sometimes give events an appropriately ghostly feel, while at others they make the ensemble look like asylum staff. Combined with Bernhard Bieri’s atmospheric lighting, the opening is especially hypnotic; the designs really do help transport you into Annamiggeli’s memories. The music is of the period, primarily Vivaldi, but with contributions also from Tartini, Albicastro and Albinoni.

Cleverly, Marston leaves just enough unsaid to keep us doubting right to the end. Her approach makes the audience work a little, but the effort is worthwhile. Story-telling through contemporary dance is unusual. It would be nice to think that Marston would be attracted to return to the UK, although I fear her style may not be entirely to British tastes. Still, dance-makers of her class are few and far between, and surely she will be in demand soon, if not already.

For more information on Anna Göldi’s story, see (German only)