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Remember me: Sasha Waltz's 'Körper'

by Paul Parish

Sasha Waltz & Guests performed "Körper" in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Bernd Uhlig
Sasha Waltz & Guests performed "Körper" in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Bernd Uhlig  

I came upon a pile of bones when I was a teenager walking in the woods. It had been a cow, beautiful horns, so cold, so bare. I grew cold as I thought deeper into the whiteness of the bones, how they had maybe settled further since the creature they'd held up had died. It was my first encounter with death, the difference between things that have consciousness and things that don't.

All these feelings came to life again in seeing "Körper" last weekend in Berkeley, where Cal Performances presented Sasha Waltz's masterpiece in Zellerbach Hall for the first time. "Körper" is generally recognized as the first great contemporary dance work of the Third Millennium. It premiered in Berlin on January 22, 2000.

Waltz was born in the 60s in Karlsruhe, on the border with France, and has gradually risen to stature as the greatest expressionist dancemaker since Pina Bausch. Her early works were brilliant, often funny. "Körper," which mean "Bodies," is "heavy" in the 60s sense of the word, "important." Waltz faced up to de-Nazification, which was imposed on Germany by the Allies in 1945, and accepted it. It's urgent that we learn from how she has made art out of this complex acceptance of guilt.

Waltz made the dance in 1999. She got to work in the monumental Jewish Museum of Berlin when it was still unfinished, She and her dancers went straight to the heart of the building, the chamber known as "the Void." Architect Daniel Libeskind's other great work is the reconstruction of the space formerly known as the World Trade Center. These are the sites against which one measures one's own imagination, depth of character, capacity to feel. Waltz's meditations on this subject, as worked out with her dancers and their responses to the bare walls and terrifying proportions of that echoing emptiness, deserve to live forever.

Your reporter saw "Körper" twice, alone and cold in the balcony for the dress rehearsal, and opening night amid a warm, excited, clued-in crowd. From a distance, it was like spending the night in your own coffin. Opening night, the crowd seemed to include every experimental dancer for 50 miles in any direction. Keith Hennessy was standing tip-toe in the ticket-line, Brenda Way of ODC stood proud in the lobby. You get the picture. It was a BFD.


Sasha Waltz & Guests performed Körper in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Bernd Uhlig  

Bursts of sound came at us from unexpected corners as we took our seats (sound by Hans Peter Kuhn). Like the opening of "Hamlet" or "King Lear," things are already out of control before it starts. With an entrance from behind a towering black wedge of a wall, two dancers in black pop out, twist and turn each other through rapid-fire geometrical figures. A new pose pushed into another startling configuration, with sudden falls to the floor in the lotus position or the swastika. A perfect freeze in that position, a log-roll into another. We're set up, "Alles ist in Ordnung." The technique is first-class, the geometry clear, mechanically exact, and the tone is commanding. The house lights dim, and the show begins.

Awkward acrobatics from a duet, then a trio, then a group, were clearly made and emotionally blinkered. The dancers fell to the floor, and you heard the bones hit. The dance emphasized the raw-boned angle as dancers hit the floor loud, a pavement of black squares, some wired for sound to amplify the impacts, a la Elizabeth Streb.

Our attention was pulled to a window in the wall, which displayed a slow-motion montage of dancers' bodies, entering like swimmer-dancers in the aquarium wall of a nightclub. You realized these people were naked, not nude. They looked like the bare, forked animals in Hieronymus Bosch's visions of hell. Poignant, vulnerable, bruisable, unprotected, the "unaccommodated man" that Lear prays for: "Ye poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er ye be, that bidest the pelting of this pitiless storm, how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you?"

Without being in any way referential, Waltz has evoked the heaps of bodies found in the camps when the war was over. The whole show is about this: bodies, sometimes barely alive, sometimes corpses, lying down atop one another as if thrown there, stretched out in trains, some of them beautiful, sometimes totemic, laid end-to-end in chains, laid head-to-foot in a trench stage-left. But there are interludes of dark comedy that make the horrors bearable. As we know from prison narratives, some times are not so bad as others.

The funniest shtick is a pair of bare-chested men in skirts whose knees work backwards. The skirt hides a second person, whose legs we see; the imagery comes from medieval maps, which showed, in the terra incognita, malformed people "whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders," or having two backs. Eventually they somersault to reveal how the trick was done. But before they get to that, there was much invention in sustaining the illusion, and plenty of time to think about the Nazis' monstrous genetic experimenting.

The overall effect is bleak, though there are moments of incredible beauty: a misty scene with a dark figure like a priestess standing at the edge of the wall that has just collapsed and now lies like a rocky outcropping on a forest floor. A priestess with divining rods, hair streaming out to the end, is an embodiment of the romantic longing for connection, sympathy, deep understanding.

When "Körper" was added to Berkeley's schedule, it was to the "Women's Work" series, and it is certainly a credit to that initiative. But the great thing that "Körper" has done is to put a new foundation under Liberal Humanism, the values of universal sympathy and hope that universities were established a thousand years ago to foster.


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