The modern choreographer Sasha Waltz, who will take over as director of the Berlin State Ballet with James Ohman as co-director in 2019, was born in Germany, studied dance in Amsterdam with a student of Mary Wigman (who was to modern dance in Europe what Martha Graham was in the United States), and in the 1980s went to New York in time for the flowering of postmodern dance. Returning to Berlin in 1993, she and Jochen Sandig launched Sasha Waltz & Guests.
The “Guests” thing is major; Waltz has collaborated with musicians, singers, dancers, designers, and visual artists from more than 30 nations on experimental and avant-garde dance — more than 80 productions in all, and along the way became a key influencer in postmodern dance as well as whatever we’re calling its many offspring.
In 2000, Waltz and composer Hans Peter Kuhn created Körper, the German word for bodies. Körper proved durable, touring to wide acclaim. Last weekend, Waltz’s Körper played Zellerbach Hall as part of Women’s Work, a multifaceted series of woman-created dance, music, theater and art within Cal Performances’ Berkeley Radical programming initiative. I saw the performance Sunday afternoon.
Körper at 18 remains a multifaceted gem as well as an enigma. It’s a 12-person tribute to the human body and to the body of humanity. This is no more doubletalk than anything else in the 90-minute show. Körper in fact doubles and redoubles upon itself. What is the body? What is at its heart — or at its liver, kidneys, and pancreas? Seriously, folks. Doesn’t our language give short shrift to many parts of the body? Aren’t all its parts equally worthy of focus? Why can’t we think of bodies, and what describes them, as corporeally flexible? The dancers, men and women alike, use monologues and gestures to upend the names for their body parts, moving as they do — bending and stretching, reaching and balancing, shifting their weight, stepping forward, shaking their torsos.
The dancers are all, from time to time, nearly nude, wearing only white underpants, or less. But they’re so matter-of-fact about it that it seems a normal and unerotic state of undress, freeing us to accept these bodies as the material of existence and, since they are dancers (drawn from all over the world), artistry.
Bernd Skodzig’s costumes, when they exist, range from loose suits in black or white, trousers a woman wears without a top, or maybe a sheer red dress, or brief tunics that strategically shield the private bits.
Here are some more questions: What if the body is more than an expression of the mind and the spirit? What if the body is the mind and spirit? And can a group of bodies, like a corps de ballet, be a single body?
What makes the head the dominant piece, the thinker of thoughts, the thing that has to be policed and supervised mentally and physically? Why couldn’t the knee be the head and vice versa, or, say, the back be the backside?
The answers are elusive, of course, and every member of the audience will have a different take on Körper. For this viewer, it was a bracing examination of physicality and what it means to a human, to humanity. Körper is sneakily affecting; while it avoids sentimentality, you cannot help marveling at this fully committed company of beautifully trained dancers, lying quietly atop each other as if blocks in a wall, or moving as a swift rhythmic unit, or as people in twos, threes, fours, or more who know each other well, affectionately, playfully, sorrowfully, and always respectfully — a major matter in this #MeToo era.
The close-reined corps work here does sometimes create a single body. But not necessarily single thoughts; there are moments of rebellion. In a chaotic episode, a dancer breaks the fourth wall to swear at the audience, then shows up, gesticulating wildly, in one of the theater’s balconies; another dancer fishes off another balcony. Two women on ice skates fly across the stage. A male dancer skis straight down the wall, supported by a wire.
The music, composed by Hans Peter Kuhn, mixes electronica, muffled accordions (or so it seems), horns, drips, shushing sounds that can menacingly accelerate in speed and volume like an onrushing train, and percussion that includes the slaps of dancers’ bodies when they hit the floor.
Körper does, ultimately, move toward a moment of reckoning, but again, everyone will have a different take on what is reckoned with as well as outcome. Is it humanity resisting groupthink? Is it a decision to fall in line? The dancers don’t seem to know either. “Yes,” they shout. Then “No.” Then “yesnoyesnoyesnoyesnoyesnoyesno,” a wall of sound, less an argument than a decision to agree to disagree, and to move — is it forward, or into oblivion?