There are dances that conceal the body’s materiality and those that do not. Go to a classical ballet and you won’t witness flesh and bone, visceral weight and dimension. Want the brutal truth? See Körper. Created in 2000 for 13 dancers, the work that brought international fame to German choreographer Sasha Waltz seizes the body and lays it bare under a forensic flashbulb glare. Examined as a clinical specimen, the body’s properties are dehumanized and rendered strange, to magnifying effect.
Körper is a plotless series of striking, movement images. The flagship comes early, and is still invincible. Set high inside a black freestanding wall – the stage’s only set-piece – is a shallow Plexiglas display case. Quasi-naked dancers (wearing white underwear) fill it; there is a ghoulish vacancy in their faces. Perhaps, they are blind. Packed in that tight space, they ooze around each other, drifting dumbly as if through an amniotic goop or murky formaldehyde. Slow globules, they stick, then part. Skins smush against the pane, leaving humid traces. This is imagery at its thrilling, potent height.
While Waltz keeps it abstract, grisly undercurrents of human atrocity seethe at the surface. In one small-group section, a man and a woman are literally lifted, dragged and pulled around by the skin. They are meat, calm carcasses strung up on hooks. In another vignette, two women announce the prices of their organs, drink water and get emptied through leaky orifices. Bodies piled, measured in chalk, rolled off a short ledge or dropped into a pit (of sluggish arms) spell genocide as much as it can be spelled without veering into political statements.
There are spoken passages too, monologues about bodily routines and trauma, paired with mismatching gestures. A humorous scene featuring two mangled centaurs – their lower halves (belonging to a different dancer) facing the wrong direction – addresses the fragmented and incongruent body. In a brilliantly-inspired graphic moment, white ceramic tea saucers are held in a vertical column along their spines, rattle noisily, displace and reset themselves – jittery vertebrae of skeletons spooked.
Waltz descends from the German dance expressionism of Mary Wigman and the Tanztheater (dance theatre) tradition of Pina Bausch, but her formalist pursuits of pure movement set her apart. Heavily influenced by the American avant-garde likes of Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown, Waltz’s movement style incorporates contact improvisation and release techniques, lending an unadorned, industrious look to her choreography. In Körper, dancers partner each other in an exchange of weight, poured in precise quantities. On their own, they are human incarnations of the folding metre stick, loose-jointed and hinging in orderly segments. Several movement phrases seem like formal studies of the body’s flat surfaces. Waltz finds them all and slams each one loudly to the floor, in confirmation.
Recently also working in opera, Waltz has been much lauded for her distinctive stage designs. At once spare and dramatic, Körper’s set features an imposing black wall that is suddenly transformed midway through into a gently-tilted horizontal plate. On and around its finite surface, she explores human scale in evocative patterns. How many bodies can fit on that edge? How to stack them to look like teeth, string together to look like tissue? Endless permutations.
Körper is an astounding work that doesn’t age. It showcases Waltz’s particular craftsmanship – the trenchant, loaded imagery, the dance abstraction and theatrical imagination structured into refined tableaux – at its very best.
Körper played two nights to a packed house at Théâtre de Maisonneuve, May 23 & 24, as part of the Féstival TransAmériques. One hopes for a quick return.
The Festival runs until June 6, with many more treats in store. Visit www.fta.qc.ca to find out more.