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Flash Review Dispatch, 11-14: Berlin Diary
Waltz from the 'Insideout'; Video no Game for Paasonen

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

BERLIN -- It was supposed to be a vacation, but somehow when I got to Berlin to see my friend Tomi Paasonen's newest work, I learned I also had the chance to see Sasha Waltz's latest piece. I had seen Waltz's "Zweiland/Zweiland" in 1999 and "Allee der Kosmonauten" in 2001, both presented by Cal Performances at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, but hadn't written anything about either. I immediately e-mailed PBI to see if he could use a review.

"Insideout" had just premiered the week before at Waltz's home base the Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz when I saw it on October 17. It is an impressive extravaganza, an installation rather than a proscenium stage performance, in which the audience wanders among the dancers while climbing up and down and strolling in and out a jungle gym of rooms/performance spaces designed by Thomas Schenk; some are part of a large central construction, others free standing "buildings"; some are completely accessible to the spectators, others inaccessible. The central construction is modular with walls sliding in or disappearing, curtains drawn open or closed, plexiglass display cases filled with dancers or emptied through doors on the back. Off to the side there is a separate small room with a clear front wall and a grass roof with sand on the floor. Another free-standing space is an aluminum refrigerated compartment with plastic strips hanging across the door.

The costumes by Bernd Skodzig run the gamut from g-string, to scanty underwear, to bathing suits, to loose pajama tops and pants, to street clothes, to grunge garb, to evening dress, to uniforms, and finally the poster image, a highly stylized suit, pants and platform shoes with stiletto heels all joined into one seamless piece, topped off by a hat plus head covering, all of an overblown black and white hounds-tooth check.

I am certainly awed by the level of coordination between the wardrobe and tech crews and the dancers as the logistics of maintaining a smooth-running show here certainly seem to surpass the choreographic complexity. (Who knows if the audience noticed, but as a former dancer and choreographer, I am fully aware of this achievement.)

The evening begins quietly, the audience seeping across the space, sampling the various sites where the dancers are moving slowly and simply to musicians playing Rebecca Saunders's very spare composition, "Solos, Duos, Trios for Ten." The effect is like looking through a kaleidoscope turning nearly imperceptibly. At first I assume that I will have time to make the rounds and take in all that is going on, but then it becomes apparent that nothing is going to be repeated and, under these circumstances, whatever I happen to see is what I get. Slowly the pace picks up and our inner voyeurs capitulate to the surrounding action. It is obvious that there is no way any one observer can see everything. Each member of the audience will have an individual experience of the performance, as in life. At one point I feel a rush of elation, as if I were Alice in Wonderland.

A woman fills her pantyhose with sand from a row of bottles. As it settles around her ankles, one word comes to my mind: elephantiasis. She lies down, raises her legs, pulls at the knit nylon, and like sands flowing in an hourglass, the response to gravity endows her thighs and hips with a gritty voluptuousness. Eventually she walks through several rooms with now sand bloated feet and is lifted by a wall of hands poking through small doors. The disembodied hands begin pulling at the pantyhose, successfully ripping holes through which the sand pours out.

The rhythm and timbre of the show grow more intense, verging on chaotic. Dancers chase each other through the crowd shouting into megaphones; an edge of violence begins widening until the atmosphere shatters. Some of the performers convince most of the audience to sit down in front of several plexiglass display boxes where other dancers put on a little show. At this point all pretense of freedom for the spectators to see the performance through their own choices evaporates. They can be manipulated as easily as a TV-addicted kids.

Unfortunately, "Insideout" never regains its driving pace, and it drifts on far too long before it's over. I am feeling disappointed that there is only the illusion of interaction between the performers and audience; there is no real participation by the spectators. What does it all mean? Yes, it is entertaining and many vignettes are intriguing, but what is the point of it all? A metaphor for life? If so, why go to all the trouble of such an elaborate performance?

Almost at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, and clear across town in the former East Berlin at Dock 11, I had seen a premiere from Tomi Paasonen, the former LINES dancer, the night before. I have watched Paasonen's development since 1998 when, after dancing with Alonzo King's company, he founded Kunst-Stoff with Yannis Adoniou in San Francisco. While he used to be far more theatrically "over the top," he has begun exploring more internal and intimate themes concerning memory, repetition/difference, self and identity, and he has stripped down both his aesthetics and choreography without any loss of impact. The emphasis is simply put on other elements or aspects of the work and the result is a crystalline brilliance.

Paasonen is the only choreographer I have ever seen who uses video projection as an integral element of what he is trying to communicate. I can't begin to count the number of times that video is really just a part of the visual design, or a means of allowing the audience to see facial expressions in great detail. With Paasonen the video is another performer on stage, evoking responses from other performers, or from the same performer who is being video-taped, either at the very moment the action is taking place or at a later instant when the video is shown. In fact, the cast for the three pieces on the program is two dancers, one cameraman, and one projectionist. Paasonen himself is responsible for the concept, direction, choreography, costumes and video direction. Lights and sound are by Markus Schulte and Mike Kokoska, while a special installation by Carle Lange and Ulf Knudsen is discussed later.

As the audience finds seats, the performers have already begun with an introductory section. Fernando Pelliccioli stands on one leg in the middle of the floor. Carlos Osatinsky walks very deliberately around the perimeter of the space. A perky Japanese woman, Yuko Matsuyama, playing off the stereotype of the smiling, obsequious Oriental, periodically rushes to the front to announce how happy she is to be here. She disappears and the first piece, "RE: Repetition and differencE" starts.

Osatinsky dances a movement phrase to some German oompapa music, an almost militaristic waltz, as Pelliccioli aims a spot light at him. When he finishes, Pelliccioli puts down the lamp, runs forward and gives a video tape to Paasonen, who inserts it in a video camera. Osatinsky begins the same phrase to the same music again. Halfway through Paasonen projects the video of the version he just danced before. Sometimes the steps match up perfectly, at other times there are distinct variations between them. Matsuyama comes out in the first of a series of elaborate costumes and delivers a speech in German while Pelliccioli grovels at her feet, wiping the floor. My companion explained that it really didn't matter that I hadn't understood precisely the meaning of what she said because it was mostly a string of plays on words, which I had understood. Then the whole process of solo dance being video-taped followed by a speech is repeated three more times. In the final version, somewhat like the effect you see when you sit in the middle of a room with mirrors on the opposing walls, you see four video dancers, one above the other, on the wall behind Osatinsky. Each version is different, some only slightly and others drastically, as the dancer has both tried to repeat and deliberately vary the movement phrase.

"W (double you)" was first performed in San Francisco in October 2002. I loved it then, and thought it was one of the very best choreographic works last season in the Bay Area. This time around it is expanded and because it is performed by two entirely different dancers, it almost is like another piece. In brief, the image of one dancer is projected onto the other dancer as they move either alone or together. There is also a section where the dancers literally chase their own projected images. In the end, we realize that the two dancers are struggling to individualize themselves from each other and yet can't help seeing how much they are alike. The way in which Paasonen brings us to that realization is very impressive as it is done only with movement and the superimposed projections.

The last piece, "O (lOOp)," utilizes an ingenious instrument/lighting tool created and played by Ulf Knudsen. He built a panel of twelve iron nails connected to 1000W of electrical current, and by stroking it with a piece of metal, he completes electrical circuits which control the lighting and create part of the sound score. As Matsuyama sings and moves and Osatinsky runs and hurls himself against the wall, I suspect that most of us can relate to the experience of wanting to flee from oneself. While the idea comes across clearly, the dance itself could be tightened up considerably and shortened.

The difference between the two choreographers' work I saw here is akin to the difference between Henry Fielding and Emily Dickinson. Waltz, like Fielding, takes on life with all its dimensions and layers, as if a caterer had laid out a smorgasbord of food from every ethnic street vendor in the world, allowing one to sample a limitless array of concoctions. Paasonen, like Dickinson, distills facets of that same life down to pure essence, then concentrates and purifies the liquor into a potent elixir that frees the imagination to muse upon the meanings that were previously elusive, but have now been brought into clearer focus. To partake of one or the other is only a matter of personal taste. Ultimately, I feel that with Waltz, in this particular piece, art imitates life a bit too much. I don't experience enough of her own individual point of view. I value Paasonen's artistic process, because his ability to shape his work into new forms leads us along uncharted paths. He opens up our eyes to see his unique perspective, to hear his voice. While with some choreographers the journey is through all too well-known territory, Paasonen allows us to explore his country with unjaded senses.

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