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Flash Review 2, 11-19: Participation Metaphor
Schussing the Korper with Sasha Waltz

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2002 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- Sasha Waltz's "Korper" -- which traveled from its home theater, Berlin's Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 20th Next Wave Festival last week -- really does feel like something new, or rather, something neo. This is what German expressionism looks like in the 21st century: a fusion form, as much deconstructed as constructed, but reliant on the German past for its root images and its ur-meanings, as I intuit them. "Korper" -- which means body, and which is about the body -- is a 90-minute ensemble piece with a cast of 13. (The cast is international.) It unfolds with an eerie lack of tone. The funny, the tragic, the weird, the obscure, the preposterous -- they're all given the same weight, which gives the piece the look of surrealism and the feeling of a dream.

Trained in the manner of the Wigman school, Sasha Waltz later danced in downtown New York. She is knowledgeable about Merce Cunningham's method and Trisha Brown's technique. She has looked at Indian art. She's interested in genetics, and the idea of gene manipulation, cloning, and such. The actual "dance" segments of her work -- the rest being, if you will, theater -- looked Trisha-ish, but more ferocious. I would have liked to have seen more of that, and less of people being dragged by their nipples, or picked up by the skin -- these were not S&M bits, and were brutal rather than kinky -- but I don't think Waltz was out to transport me to some kind of dance heaven. I think she wanted me trapped in my seat the same way that I am trapped in my body. Hers is a kind of participation metaphor.

Waltz is interested in stagecraft and its devices: a Lucite window traps dancers behind it like ants in an ant farm, as subtle strips on the wall behind them enable the performers to clamber vertically and horizontally; bottles of water are spilled and splashed to portray body fluids; a hole in a black wall serves as a kind of porthole for various body parts, which appear like weird puppets; an actual skier schusses from the top of the wall to the floor. The wall, which has also served as a blackboard, crashes to the floor, and half the stage becomes a plywood incline.

Waltz is interested, too, in illusion: a two-headed woman, a man whose reflection is a woman, a body whose legs go backwards, a body that's two torsos. (These kinds of things tend to remind me of Robert Wilson, though he is more concerned with surface and elegance, and is more adept a manipulator of color, light, and scale.) She understands the uses of nudity, and the effect of mixing the naked and the dressed. When, in the Lucite window chamber, the naked are joined by a woman wearing only dark underpants and socks and shoes, the effect is brutal. Suddenly and horribly, they all look as if they've been stripped.

Throughout, the work is dark. When the dancers aren't pseudo-nude -- they all wear skin-toned briefs, so that the women seem more naked than the men, at least to me -- they for the most part wear fairly ordinary black attire, though at one point they wore only multiple strands of tiny bells. It was then that they scribbled in white chalk on the stage's dark back wall, and inscribed circles around themselves. This reminded me of Leonardo's notebooks, but to a friend it depicted, with painful vividness, the wheels of the trains that took the Jews to the concentration camps, and the fences that penned them there. (Because Waltz doesn't pin down her images, the work lends itself to personalization.) To me, the most affecting image was perhaps the most simple: the dancers, in a line, stepped around in a circle as if they were the second hand of a clock, first ascending the inclined stage, and then back around. While not utopian in any way, the moment suggested a shared humanity.

Other sequences involved or evoked trafficking in body parts, plastic surgery, being measured for beds or coffins, Shiva morphing into a creature with an exoskeleton, a mass grave, a woman whose many long braids were attached to two poles, and a man in a box on the left of the opera house who "shot" people in the audience with a fishing rod. He was either blindfolded, or wearing dark glasses. At around this point, the ominous sound of hissing, like gas escaping, came not only from the on stage sound system, but from speakers behind us. (This is what I mean by participation metaphor.)

"Korper" is episodic, to a fault. And although the episodes themselves have structure, the piece has no real through-line, or, in Waltz-speak, no spine. There, is, however, a recurring playlet, with different actors and text but the same meaning: in each a story is both told and illustrated by a narrator who experiences a kind of kinesthetic synesthesia. For instance, in the segment called "Sigal's story," as the performer says "First thing in the morning, I open my eyes," she points to her nipples. As she goes on, she continues to mine her body for metaphor, substituting one part for another. As the work proceeds, three other performers will tell their different stories, to similar effect. To complicate matters, there are also simultaneous non-speaking translators, who indicate the correct, unmetaphorical, body parts the narrators mention. One of these translators is a man wearing an animal mask, which originally appears as the head of a stuffed animal that is tossed on stage, then eviscerated by the performer and transformed into a costume. (He appears to be some sort of Minotaur.)

By the time the last narrator tells his story, the entire company is translating. "I wanted," he says, "to show her everything, everything that makes me different from everybody else..." I think, though, that Waltz wants to show us that we are all the same. She wants us all to be bodies, and she wants us all to be Berliners. For all its theatricality, "Korper" ends abruptly, not so much as if it is over, but as if it hasn't quite found an end.

Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.

(Editor's Note: To read Paul Ben-Itzak's Sasha Waltz, "Coppelia," and the Manipulation of the Body, please click here. To read Christine Chen's Orbiting Pina's World...and waltzing with the Astronauts, which also considers Sasha Waltz, click here.)

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