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Flash Flashback, 4-7: Brave Old World
Sasha Waltz Busts to Move

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2005 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Flash Review Archives. This Flash originally appeared on October 13, 2004. Sasha Waltz and her company are reprising her "Impromptus" through Saturday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sara Bernhardt. The reviewer offers some fresh reflections from Tuesday's performance at the end of this article.)

PARIS -- Who'd have thought that the French dance scene, mesmerized by the bright lights of outdated theater concepts, would be saved from its paralysis -- or at least receive a refresher on dance's core movement values -- by an artist from the land of tanztheater? And yet, following up on Pina Bausch's dancey "Nefes," which closed the last Paris season at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, German choreographer Sasha Waltz has opened this one in the same venue with a brave foray into pure dance that, notwithstanding the occasional truc or prop along the way, once again demonstrates that this is a CHOREOGRAPHER who finds her metier in challenges.

Created earlier this year and receiving its Paris premiere last night -- the US premiere comes December 5, 2005 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- "Impromptus," set to Franz Schubert's cycle of the same name plus four lieder, follows on the heels of "Insideout." In her review of that piece during its initial Berlin run last year, the Dance Insider's Aimee Ts'ao called it "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."

For "Impromptus," all is eminently accessible, vertiginously so, as the dancers cascade down two super-raked slats designed by Schenk and the choreographer. (Jochen Sandig and Yoreme Waltz served as dramaturgs.) With delicacy and fortitude, pianist Cristina Marton renders Schubert from a baby grand just below the downstage right corner of the smaller flat, joined dramatically when fiery-haired soprano Judith Simonis mounts the flat to deliver the first lieder. The dancing, inflected with Waltz's quirky humor, often continues in long intervals of silence between the musical pieces.

Ironically and as previously noted, this reviewer finds it more challenging to analyze pure movement than overtly narrative creations, but I'll try to share some highlights.

If it's hard to trace the vocabulary of "Impromptus" to one school of movement, it's not hard to see that, as with her dance-theater work, Waltz often gives herself (and her dancers, who are co-credited for the choreography here) added challenges or assignments which up the anti. So what's striking about an early duet between Xuan Shi and Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola is not that it's male-male, nor the tonal contrast of Shi in just black briefs to his partner in grey slacks and matching sleeveless chemise, nor even that they're exploring different levels -- all this, remember, on a hyper-raked stage. The assignment and the marvel here seems to be "Look Ma! No hands," as Shi balances in different attitudes on different planes of Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola's body, never once using his hands as ballast. Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola, likewise, is not permitted to assure his baggage's stability with his hands; while he quivers at one point -- when a vertical Shi balances on his side, as I recall -- he never drops his partner.

Another section for all seven dancers begins with them drawing circles -- I meant literally drawing -- on the two stages/flats, then running circles around the two floor slats and behind the upright upstage flat, in essentially a waltz (you can thank me now for resisting "Waltz Waltzes" as my headline) pattern.

If its courageous for Waltz to step out of what she knows best -- dance-theater -- into pure dance, she isn't able to completely give up that safety net, or crutch. Occasionally -- almost as a six-year-old child might do when he's trying to wean himself from his security blanket, no longer needing it as an appendage but still looking over at it to make sure it's still there -- Waltz can't resist extra-dance effects. Thus one section begins not with the sounds of Schubert, but of water-filled galoshes trudging onto the stage, ploddingly, on the feet of Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola and Claudia de Serpa Soares, a compact and sleek power-house and a Waltz regular. After the men paint orange and black lines below the feet of the four women, the water is poured onto the paint, diluted streams cascading down the stages. Matters threaten to get out of hand; when two women on the smaller stage started grappling, I wrote down, "Female mud wrestling." But then everyone exits save Maria Marta Colusi on the smaller right slat, and Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola on the left.

They stop. He notices her, and steps up to her platform. They face each other silently before beginning an intricate pas de deux. Her white dress is splotched in orange paint, his face smudged in black; she has a smudge too. Yet they are oblivious to these deformations as they weave with and around each other. My companion noted the odd yet riveting connections, as when she rests her head on his foot then slips between his legs. I saw -- perhaps projecting -- a narrative: We all arrive at relationships with our own stains. And yet we join. Far from scaring off our desired partners, the stains, our marks, sometimes rub off on each other, forging a brilliant future from our scarred pasts.

It would be lyrical to end my review there, as it would have been for Waltz to let this duet finish in its integrity. Unfortunately, here again -- perhaps not fully trusting her ability to dance without the crutch of props -- just when Colusi and Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola are floating into the sublime, Waltz pulls us abruptly out of it by interjecting a third dancer, a woman who appears from below a panel in the smaller slat, a region which reveals itself as a bathtub. She strips, of course. The moment is broken. Kruz Diaz etc. jumps off the stage and parts, leaving Colusi to yearn winsomely after him, but only for a moment before she turns silly and strips too, joining the other woman in the bath. And voila, just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, so to speak, we get what Joe-Bobb Briggs might call Gratuitous Nekkid-Bimbo-Bath-Fu. (Which is not to say the women are bimbos, but that for all that their dance skills are utilized, they might as well be as they sit on the rim of the tub with their butt-cracks to us.)

Still, at a time when even the Paris Opera Ballet's direction has precipitated one of our finest classical companies into a (bad) Modern morass, Sasha Waltz's "Impromptus" arrives as a welcome refresher on the beauty and power of pure unadulterated dance. My hope is that this is not a one-off for the choreographer, an answer to those (in some quarters -- not this one) who from her dance-theater oeuvre needed to see proof she could really choreograph. This is a woman with a mind, and this is a dance that demonstrates that mind is just as intriguingly applied to movement problems as improbable dance-theater scenarios.

In addition to those mentioned above, Sasha Waltz's "Impromptus," set to Schubert, was performed and co-choreographed by Clementine Deluy, Luc Dunberry, and Michal Mualem. It continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt through Saturday. Please visit the theater's web site.

Post-Script, 4-7-05: Unsurprisingly -- because the work has had some months to sink in with the dancers -- on revisiting "Impromptus" Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, I find the musicality of the dance and the dancers interpreting it to have deepened. They've absorbed the dance, and the dance the music. While the dance world's anti-dance forces seem to have retreated a bit here in Europe -- even the Paris Opera Ballet will be dancing more next season -- reinforcements are on the horizon: The next edition of the Rencontres Choregraphiques "Internationales" actually includes one piece called "How Heavy are My Thoughts," and which promises a simultaneous translation in French, presumably of the English text. (When a putatively dance piece requires translation -- I mean of words -- we know we're not in Dance-as anymore, Toto.) So what a tonic that one of Europe's most popular and adventurous choreographers remains more concerned with musicality -- and to Schubert, no less! -- and with weight-sharing (as my Pilobolus companion for the performance put it) than weighty thoughts.

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