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Flash Review 2, 1-23: Tanz Can Dance
In "NoBody," Waltz puts the Body Back in Dance Theater

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Sasha Waltz is a trickster, a tonic of a physical poet operating from deep within the territory of an otherwise increasingly bodyless German tanztheater who, in "NoBody," the final episode of the triptych begun with "Korper," has rejected prop-induced hysteria in favor of controlled kinetic kaos. Experienced -- and that's the proper word for it, because this work cannot be observed in reserve or remote -- last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in its Paris premiere, "NoBody" is in fact the most beautifully body-full modern dance work to hit this town all season.

Arriving at the theater last night, I was a bit in a New York state of mind, slightly regretting that I wouldn't be across the ocean to personally witness the rebirth of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Earlier in the day, my colleague Darrah Carr and I had been talking about how, as much as Modern Dance has spun out since Martha Graham gave it its first vocabulary, it is important to be reminded of the roots. In some parts of the world -- Belgium and Germany come to mind -- Modern Dance has spun out so far that it has unravelled. Dancers talk, they stand around as breathing components of an installation, they sing, they play music instruments -- the healthy impulse to use the other arts as devices or even partners has become perverted until even self-identified choreographers don't show much by way of choreography, or the dance cannot be heard above the multi-media racket.

Another colleague opined that Waltz is her generation's Pina Bausch, and that's true to the degree that she has her devoted adherents; no spectacle here produces "Cherche une place" signs in front of the theater like Sasha Waltz. But unlike Bausch, while Waltz certainly can dazzle with prop bazaars, she has not relegated choreography to the role of second-class citizen. Dancers (and some dance critics, including this one) like Bausch, but I'm not sure how much she dances anymore.

Waltz, by contrast, at least as seen by this critic last night, not only works at choreography, but makes her audience and critics work to apprehend it. During most of the first part of "NoBody," created last year in Berlin, my first thought was how inadequate a dance critic I am. Except for the three sets of lucite windows in which dancers were occasionally seen to assume tableaus, the vast stage was propless -- but not, with a cast of 26 (twice that of "Korper"), peopleless. The best description I could think of was 'ameoba' -- which, as it was explained to me later by a company member, is in fact what Waltz was going for in this chapter of the triptych. "Korper" aimed to be about the body, often separated out into parts (confirmed by the observations of my colleague Nancy Dalva in her review in these pages), "S" about the feelings associated with the body (my own review is mixed on whether she got this across), and "NoBody," about the bodyless body, if you will.

The pattern here was for large groups of the performers, usually encompassing all but a a couple of the 26, to move about the stage clustered together and in evolving, amorphous shapes. In one of the most engaging segments, they congealed downstage left and, keeping only their toes glued to the stage, shot out heads or arms in unison or canon in various directions. Torsos dipped. Heads riveted robotically. In another, 25 of the 26 played pile up. What impressed was not so much what individual dancers were doing, but the way Watlz deployed them all around the stage, the way she used it and the way she arranged her troupe.

This is not to say there were not smaller moments that gripped. For much of the first part, a single performer detached from the ensemble -- often Junko Wada, riveting in her slow, single-minded walk around the circumference of the stage.

I should mention, too, that -- though I didn't get that this was the intention until it was explained to me later -- for the first part of the spectacle, all of the dancers were facially detached from what their bodies were doing, displaying neither the somber nor the cold face of post-Modern, but rather visages out of which the life had been washed.

Regarding "Korper," Nancy Dalva noted in her review that Waltz's "is a kind of participation metaphor." Two times last night, she seemed to respond to my silent queries. In the first part, just as I was internally remarking on her spare use of props, a giant white fabric dropped from the catwalk and inflated, prompting general panic from the performers, who for the first time oralized, screaming en masse as they scrambled around trying to take care of each other until they fled into the wings or up the aisles. (I thought of the Orange balloon in the '60s television show "The Prisoner.") But then suddenly -- as if, the hard work over, Waltz had released them with an "Okay, now let's play," the mood changed. Costume props were injected, the dancers were permitted to smile, and I started seeing things I recognized, albeit slightly warped.

After a male dancer had torn off his shirt and stuffed it into his mouth, followed by a colleague stripping down to her underwear and stuffing the rest of her vestments into his mouth also as he continued to try to speak, suddenly a man in a triangular wooden dress glided onstage and rang a bell. Five more performers entered and minced/cascaded around the room: Intended or not, it was a total parody of the "Nutcracker" dance in which Sugarplum's minions glide over the stage in floor-length dresses. Only these 'dresses' were wood, enabling them to serve also as percussive instruments, whether beaten by the hands of their wearers or echoing when the performers fell backwards, like dominos. Heads would also submerge into the necks and between the straps of the gowns and then pop back up.

Later, or I think it was later, and as the rest of the dancers looked on, engaged, Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola, harumphing, slid onto the ground next to Nicola Mascia and slipped himself into the latter's sleeveless pullover -- while Mascia was still wearing it. Then Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola frantically removed his own pants, and fitted his legs into Mascia's expanding white trousers. Pilobolus fans will know what happened next (although I've never seen this on Pilobolus): "He" arose and suddenly a four-footed, eight-limbed human was trudging around the stage. (A creature apparently also conjured in "Korper.") The beast took on a lyrical aspect when Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola nudged his partner out of the pullover, leaving his naked torso swinging behind him. At one point, the ensemble picked him up lengthwise, leaving Mascia's torso to swing under him perpendicular to his partner's body and the floor.

Later, the ensemble picked them both up, at either of its ends, obscuring the lower body of one and the upper body of the other, the effect being, especially when the one's upper body rose at one end of the group and the other's legs fell at the other, of a super-long body.

There was still that white balloon to contend with, though, and as it got bigger and more and more rambunctious, everyone skeedadled until only the diminuitive and girlish Claudea de Serpa Soares was left to engage it. This she did charmingly, standing between the object and us in a bullet-riddled white dress and then commencing to ride it like a giant wave, reacting wondrously -- with widened eyes or whistle-forming lips ("Oooohhh!") -- to how it lifted her. The sphere formed a cushy chair and lifted her into the air, it made a giant beanbag which subsumed her, and finally became a wave which submerged her.

Then, remarkably in touch with their bodies, everyone circled the giant white balloon and collapsed it then scrunched it to a tiny bundle. But not before a shower of shredded black paper rained down on them, washing all angst away.

Helping to set the insulated, magical mood of the evening was Hans Peter Kuhn's ambient soundscape.

The rest of the spirited performers, all of whom were also credited in addition to Waltz with the choreography, were Mikel Aristegui, Rita Aozane Bilibio, Hsuan Cheng, Clementine Deluy, Lisa Densem, Luc Dunberry, Andreas Ebbert, Su-Mi Jang, Hans-Werner Klohe, Thusnelda Mercy, Grayson Millwood, Michal Mualem, Sasa Queliz, Laura Siegmund, Norbert Steinwarz, Takako Suzuki, Mohan Thomas, Laurie Young, Matan Zamir, and Zuan Shi.

Sasha Waltz's "NoBody" continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt through Sunday, and returns to Paris March 19 - 22. For more information, please click here.

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