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Flash Review 2, 5-19: Going with the Tide
Sasha Waltzes with the Tsunamis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Speaking of would-be choreographer-healers, as Chappelle Chambers does today in her Flash of Heidi Latsky, personal illness isn't the only malady dance makers would treat these days. If I had a Euro for every press release I receive that promises a response to the all the disaster, death, and destruction, I'd be writing you right now from my own private island (buttressed by Bechtel, bien sur). Unfortunately, like Wim Vandekeybus's recent torture fest, in the end most of these efforts that I've seen simply replicate the dark deeds without offering any kind of real response, invariably leaving me asking, "You're dancers; what do you know about suffering?" I'm not saying artists need to solve or cure our troubles; but where they have promised a response to them, I think it's fair to expect that they're going to use the tools available to them to shed some light.

For her new "Gezeiten" (Tides), receiving its French premiere through tomorrow night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, Sasha Waltz wanted to use her skills "to give an account" of how our constant exposure to natural and man-made disasters -- in this age of information globalization -- affects us individually and as a society. She also wanted, she says in the program notes, to exploit that the theater setting would not allow us to simply switch the channel but assign "more active participation" to the spectators. Like Ernest Borgnine on the Poseidon, we'd be trapped.

Well, not really; fleeing the theater is an acceptable reaction over here. Having done this before when choreographers subjected us to chalk dust or eardrum-piercing noise -- critics don't get hazard pay, folks! -- I might have been expected to join the handful of audience members exiting this time when the stage started going up in flames and smoke filtering into the house, both apparently real. (A visible fire extinguisher was also at hand, but they sure took their time using it.) But when a serious choreographer-director like Sasha Waltz, who has proven herself not to be capricious, torches the proscenium, you cut her some slack.

By this point, Waltz had already lived up to her promise, in the program notes, to take her time with this theme. The first 20 minutes of the 100-minute tale sets it up, depicting a group of dancers in mostly pastel-colored civvies going through a drill of weight-based routines. My dad found these purposeless; I appreciated both Waltz's facility and the dancers' agility in the different intersections at which bodies connected.

On a couple of days' reflection -- we saw the piece Tuesday -- I realize that in the context of the work this prelude was essential. Besides the obvious narrative contribution -- much of the weight-shifting involved leaning, as in lean on me, setting up a norm that would be more or less levelled when the disaster struck in the second part -- Waltz also wanted to show us this particular society during normal times, so we could better appreciate how its members dealt (or not) with catastrophe.

When the disaster strikes, she insures we won't be able to distance ourselves by immediately making it personal: As just about everyone climbs up on a clump of desks -- as onto higher ground during a tsunami -- one man doesn't make it. A man on even higher ground -- a sort of shed over one of the doors to the space -- warns the others not to jump in after him, as if he is contaminated. The man in the 'water,' struggling -- perhaps drowning -- beseeches his fellows for help. Finally, a woman in a yellow nurse-like dress can stand it no more and, donning surgical gloves, retrieves the man, strips him and bathes him, before taking him off. When she returns alone, stricken and wailing, the impression is that he's perished. Here also Waltz starts to show how her approach to this theme will be different; instead of simply letting the nurse woman drop her role and become a neutral dancer again before rejoining everyone else for the next tableau as if nothing has happened to her, she more or less stays in character for the rest of the dance-play, retaining the weight of the man's death.

I should pause here to say that, besides the smoke and flames, the disaster is indicated in the physical space by spouting water, the sound of Earthquake-like tremors, and the gradual dissolution of the playing surface, as planks are dislodged -- and at one point even shoot up -- from the stage.

It's mostly indicated in the comportment of the players, most effectively and -- simultaneously -- problematically in a long comic section towards the end of the piece, anchored by Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola, dance's own Stan Laurel. Covered in 9/11-evoking white dust, Esnaola becomes a sort of carpenter-doctor, taking one subject, for instance, and stuffing sticks into his shirt until the man's head is surrounded by them. Later, he uses his hammer to assault the feet of a woman with wide slats of brittle plywood inserted in her pants (which she'd just use to give the effect of her knees cracking when she bent them). We don't realize until after he's whapped them that her feet, too, are long cloth-covered pieces of wood. Claudia de Serpa Soares, another Waltz veteran, joins the human-puppet fun, sitting down at a table facing us as if it's the most natural thing in the world that her ears have turned into bricks.

On the one hand, what Waltz is doing here is structurally sound, providing some levity before we get back to the chaos and carnage. But it also bears too much resemblance to other pieces in which she shows a weakness for Bauschian noodling with props whose place is not always as clear as it is chez Pina. If its purpose is more apparent here -- one man, Esnaola, is responding to the destruction by coming apart, trying to re-assemble the wood, but on human beings -- this slapstick also risks disenthralling us from Waltz's story.

She wins us back with an ending as clean as it is ambiguous, as three large larvae (each made up of two dancers, one standing on the other's shoulder, both totally wrapped in fabric) emerge slowly from the rubble, squirming, their upper parts weaving about. The tableau could indicate that only the worms survived the apocalpyse; or it could promise a new beginning.

"Gezeiten" is performed and co-choreographed by the pristine actor-dancers of Sasha Waltz and Guests, who include, in addition to those mentioned above, Davide Camplani, Maria Marta Colusi, Matija Ferlin, Gabriel Galindez Cruz, Maria Ohman, Pinar Omerbeyoglu, Friederike Plafki, Koen De Preter, Virgis Puodziunas, Sasa Queliz, Maria Eugenia Rivas Medina, Xuan Shi, Davide Sportelli, and Laurie Young. Music includes selections from J.S. Bach's "Suites for Cello," smoothly rendered by James Bush, and an effective sound score from Jonathan Bepler. Thomas Schenk designed the sets with Waltz.


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