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Flash Review 1, 2-5: Orbiting Pina's World
....And Waltzing With the Astronauts

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

BERKELEY, California -- In her 1996 "Allee de Kosmonauten" (Avenue of the Astronauts), presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall this weekend, choreographer/director Sasha Waltz glimpses the tensions and dynamics between three generations of a family living together within the confines of a single home. In this work based on interviews Waltz conducted with the inhabitants of an East German housing project, she offers us a steadily flowing series of essays about relationships, families, work, dreams, reality and existence.

In the spirit of German Tanztheater (though Waltz denies her Bauschian ties), the energy in "Allee" is aggressive, feverish, and unrelenting; the characters exaggerated, neurotic, and two-dimensional; the performers passionate, committed, and bold; the movement vocabulary idiosyncratic, virtuosic and inventive; and the tone tragic, humorous, and grotesque. Waltz's theater is more accessible and less stirring than Bausch's, however. While Bausch exaggerates familiar and everyday conditions to the point of humor, then goes further to the point of utter disintegration, Waltz stops at the slapstick. In pushing further, Bausch infuses her work with political and social content and forces her audience to mobilize and respond. Waltz offers no viewpoint, but articulates the conditions and spirit of each situation. She shows us the quirky relationships between the different people in the household, and the frustration stemming from the rift between the dreams and reality for each individual.

In the tight quarters the performers bang and walk on walls, hurl their bodies around and generally go about their daily existence with a cartoon-like energy and absurdity. Relationships explode, implode, converge and digress because of the passions which can find no space to vent.

The characters are archetypal, and are drawn with broad strokes and little subtlety. There are the older parental figures -- the narcoleptic, bulky (rendered with full body padding) mom and the nerdy, accordion-playing dad; the angst-ridden younger couple -- the sexy but tortured woman and the abusive, lusty man; and the kids -- the bright-eyed girl in knee highs, Mary Janes and a sailor dress, and the dorky, knicker-wearing boy. Though they are caricatures, they do illuminate some universals, and they represent some of the extreme impulses we all have.

The set consists of a single sofa, the back wall, and a series of television screens (arranged with four in a square stage right, four lined up horizontally high above center stage, and eight stacked in a high rectangle stage left). These screens display the minimal and elegant work of filmmaker Elliot Caplan. Exhibiting richly-hued everyday objects (a lamp, wineglasses, a dog, etc.) as fractured and whole images, Caplan's work unfolds organically and provides a balancing backdrop to the frenetic activity of the live action. The program notes explained that these videos are supposed to represent a dream world, but, for me, their presence was significant on a more subconscious level -- complementing the action without distracting from it (no easy feat for multi-media installations). The richly layered music collage of Classical, German pop, and ambient sound composed by Lars Rudolph and Hanno Leichtmann, along with the accordion composition created and played onstage by consummate performer Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola, supported and drove the action, as well.

Some of the vignettes in "Allee," though aptly performed by the Dance Ensemble of the Schaubuhne Theatre, felt largely derivative and predictable: How many times do I have to watch a woman running around in her underwear being beat up and thrown around by a man? Or a young woman thrashing around in angst and frustration? The more interesting material came with the dynamics of the group interacting together. The men, in a commentary on the tedium of work, deftly partnered each other and a plank of wood, seamlessly and flippantly tumbling, lifting and riding on bodies and the board with a mechanical yet human precision. Towards the end, chaos erupts with each individual attempting to "do their own thing" within the limited quarters. They then freeze in a series of hilarious tableaus before stumbling into action again.

Because the driving pace was constant, and because the material simply bumped along, never reaching a significant climax or crisis, the piece felt just slightly too long. The pure physicality and the amazing prowess of all the performers was riveting, but only for so long, before I was left wanting more.

I applaud Waltz for attempting to infuse the German dance theater genre with a more kinetic, contact-inspired vocabulary and sensibility, and hope she continues to evolve and depart from Bausch's divine but dated formula as the new, young co-director of the prestigious Berlin Schaubuhne Theatre. Cal Performances also deserves credit for presenting Waltz amidst an otherwise safe season (Ailey, Nederlands Dans Theater, Mark Morris, etc.). Another added treat provided by Cal Performances (originally produced by the Goethe Institut in 1998) was the pictorial documentary "Dance Theatre Today: 30 Years of German Dance History" displayed in the mezzanine of Zellerbach Hall. The exhibition contains 62 stunning black and white photographs of the works of Pina Bausch, Johann Kresnik, William Forsythe, Susanne Linke, Henrietta Horn, Sasha Waltz and others -- though emphasis was, understandably, focused on Bausch.

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