Sasha Waltz, an increasingly renowned German choreographer often compared to Pina Bausch—the reining doyenne of danztheater—premiered her latest work Körper (Bodies) at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in November. Körper is a series of oftentimes witty and sometimes disturbing interconnecting vignettes. Each reveals the choreographer’s ingenuous and inventive ways of grappling with the conundrum that is the human body. In Körper, the body—the tool of dance—takes center stage as Waltz magnifies its vicissitudes. The work is trenchant in its sly critique of our image-obsessed society. It explores not only how we use the body in a very practical sense, but also how we perceive it.
The set design, conceived by Waltz, Thomas Schenk and Heike Schuppelius, is a simple austere black box, which fittingly evokes a warehouse and helps to emphasize the body-as-machine motif central to this work. As audience members enter, they are greeted by two dancers slowly and unobtrusively walking along a large black wall that remains center stage for much of the piece. In such a spartan space, the body can truly be placed on display: analyzed, objectified, and presented to us in surprising and thought-provoking ways. In one instance, a sole hand emerges from a small whole in the black wall. A full arm and then a leg next protrude—the appen-dages eerily disconnected from the core.
Waltz also explores the different ways in which the body can move. For example, in an opening trio, absent is the relaxed ease and flow we commonly associate with dance. Instead, holding themselves as rigid as planks, the dancers slam their bodies to the floor. They fall with a thud on their backs, stomachs, and, in terse, intense partnering sequences, pull and tug at each other.
The most captivating section of Körper is serene and sensuous, a drastic contrast to the jarring aesthetic of the first vignette. A glass box encased within the black wall encloses dancers who slide and slither around each other. The effect is that of a Klimt painting come alive. The bodies unfold and curl up within themselves, and this slow continuous movement is mesmerizing. Dancers emerge from the frames of the box; some dangle their legs down from the top, others enter from the side. The dancers appear to levitate. Here, Waltz has created a stunning and transportive trompe l’oeil.
In another section, two women objectify each other by slapping dollar signs on each others’ bodies. Each amount relates to the cost of a liposuction or plastic surgery procedure. Such wry humor continues as one dancer steps forward to discuss her ailing body, pointing to her elbow while discussing her head. The disconnect between her words and her body seems to be Waltz’s way of highlighting the easy, nonchalant way in which we take the body and all its functions and parts for granted.
Körper reaches a crescendo of chaos in a nightmarish vignette. Here, Waltz creates a surreal dreamscape. Dancers scattered across the stage fall deeply into their own obsessions; a woman crawls on the floor, lifting up floor boards; another woman dances the tango alone; a man attempts to ski down the face of a wall as another stands in an orchestra box pretending to shoot the audience. It’s a disturbing and disquieting scene that comes to an abrupt halt when the large black wall crashes down to the floor. And, as the stage space changes, so too does the rest of the piece.
Pure dance fills most of this second section: bare bodies stack up on top of each other; women, wearing simple sheath dresses with bells attached, frantically criss-cross the stage; and duets of fluid, adept dancing round out the piece. Yet, the energy and vision that infused the first part of Körper seems lacking in the second. The conclusion is murky and unclear for such an otherwise bold piece. Waltz brings us to a crescendo, but one with no appropriate coda. A man and woman placed on opposite sides of a looking glass mimic each other as the lights fade. It’s simple and lovely in its own way, but this quiet, contemplative ending is sadly bereft of the intensity of the opening.
On the whole, though, Waltz has successfully used a good dose of humor, balanced by more introspective moments, to explore her ideas about the body. Körper, with its apocalyptic score by Hans Pete Kuhn, and deft performances by its diverse cast of dancers—Mikel Aristegui, Davide Camplani, Lisa Densem, Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola, Luc Dunberry, Annette Klar, Nicola Mascia, Grayson Millwood, Michael Mualem, Virgis Puodziunas, Claudia de Serpa Soares, Takako Suzuki, and Laurie Young—is a satisfying intellectual examination of how the body is central to life and society, as both a practical tool and an ideal.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.