Impromptu intimacies

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday October 28, 2014
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Cal Performances devoted last weekend in Berkeley to Schubert. Sunday afternoon the great pianist Richard Goode played the last three sonatas in Zellerbach Hall, while Friday and Saturday nights that wonderful stage was given to the dancers of Sasha Waltz and guests, accompanied by pianist Cristina Marton and mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff.

I haven't heard the sonatas yet, but Waltz and her dancers have set a very high standard of musicianship for anyone to match. The composition, simply called Impromptus, used the postmodern American style, which is developed on intimacy, improvisation, mutual respect, and absence of rhetorical imposture, to create an accompaniment for the music in a spirit of high friendship, tenderness, respect, and lightness of grasp – with full acknowledgment of the Gothic outcroppings that burst through Schubert's heavenly melodies when you'd least expect them.

Indeed, the dancing started before the music, with a man (Juan Kruz D'az de Garaio Esnaola) who began to lurch as if he'd been hit with the excrucio curse – the back of his neck seized up, his shoulders went tense, he went through many contortions just this side of falling over backwards, in silence for almost a minute, before a Doppelganger (Xuan Shi) appeared on the other side of the stage and had something similarly hostile take possession of his sinews and remove all grace from his aspect. When the Impromptu in F minor finally began, it was as if Orpheus were playing, and a softness began to infuse the frozen limbs of the men and soothe their wretchedness.

Not that Schubert is invariably soothing – sometimes the intimacy he creates comes through shared pain. The German for this is "Innigstes Beileid"; in English, it's "I understand." It's his practice to take a melody and pull it out, varying it harmonically, changing its emotional color by adding dissonances and chromatic distortions that sometimes ravish you, and sometimes leave you desolate, but leave you feeling like you've shared something important. He sustains the melody, sometimes obsessively, but keeps changing the emotional weather, with genius timing so no mood lasts beyond your power to endure it. He is the master of shades of pain: wistful, melancholy, poignant, hoping-against-hope, wrenching, violent, heartbreaking, despairing, devastating. And there is a huge range of joys as well, all the way to rapture, flying high – but in the Impromptus, never for long.

It's important to remember the new reign of terror that hit Schubert and his friends when they were young. He was a teenager when Napoleon fell, and the restored monarchies moved quickly to stamp out liberal sympathies. The secret police arrested him and his friends in his early 20s; one of them was locked away for a year. He has something in common with Shostakovich. Unlike Beethoven, he could not proclaim that "Alle Menschen werden Bruder." It had become suddenly dangerous to share your feelings with anyone but your closest friends. And so Schubert's music is characterized by its intimacy, friendship, and outbursts of terror. He explored Innigkeit, and it's this inward world that the Waltz ballet opens up.

Waltz is herself German; she's now a big force in Berlin. But she's very influenced by the American postmodernists of the 1960s. The German in her can hear harbingers of Expressionism in Schubert's music, and the irony that in the heart of the nightingale's song lies a bitter, wrenching pain. But as a dancer Waltz is following Steve Paxton, the inventor of contact improvisation, which was the dance equivalent of the Free Speech Movement. For her dancers, their first partner is the floor. The music is a major influence, but not the reason they're moving.

The dancers appear on a stage that's torn into ledges, as if an earthquake had disrupted a wafer of rock. In the midst of darkness, two ledges veer towards us, with a rift between them that, to cross, the dancers must leap up or hop down. At the back a golden parallelogram abuts the ledge, sticking up like the back of a chair. Nine episodes take place on and around these ledges. The loveliest was one in which the dancers merely ran around like modern dancers, frolicking; a Feiffer-ish "dance like the wind." Perhaps the most alarming one came when the vertical parallelogram suddenly came unfixed and began swinging – it put me in mind of a guillotine. I think someone was singing. Though the dance images were very strong, the non-sequiturs were so powerful that it's almost impossible to remember what came before what.

Waltz's choreography was at its finest in the duets, downright wizardly. The way the dancers work with each other is magically intimate. For example, the Doppelganger pair finally came together, and Xuan Shi, who was almost nude, managed to log-roll up the other's body. You could never see how he took his grip, where were the hand-holds, but suddenly he'd rolled all the way up, he was on the other guy's shoulders, and you couldn't see how it happened, who'd done the work.

The last Impromptu, in C minor, ended with a couple backing away from each other in slow motion, as darkness gathered, infinitely regressing, an image that will haunt me till the day I die.