Anyone fortunate enough to walk into Zellerbach Hall this weekend will not be surprised to learn that choreographer Sasha Waltz is the daughter of an architect. Everything about “Körper” (German for “bodies”) is about architecture–that designed by humans and the miraculous anatomical and biological design of the human body. The impact is immediate. The black stage is open with a monolithic three story-high black wall that slices the stage at a diagonal. As one takes their seat, Hans Peter Kuhn’s surround sound composition is already pinging organic and industrial sounds through the audience. Mirroring the set design, these noises also carve out space as a couple of dancers casually appear with the audience continuing to flood into the theater. The two dancers, moving a bit mime-like, stay close to the wall marking it with chalk as seemingly dismembered body limbs start to poke through holes in the wall, first groups of fingers then legs and arms. When another dancer eventually appears with a digital sign that says, “Shut off your phones” in German and English, signaling the performance to officially begin.
In creating “Körper”, Waltz pulled from the emotional content and movement vocabulary of the Holocaust and her personal reconciliation with being a German woman. For her purpose the bodies in her dance speak of the body politic; the body as sovereignty–or the lack thereof–the body as industrialized commodity, the body as an organism in a Petri dish viewed by an outside authority. Nudity is quickly established–to varying degrees from total to partial—and has more of a clinical and biological presentation, the way bodies are impersonally prodded on an examination tables or stacked or thrown into a mass grave. At one point, two female dancers mark their bodies where their organs are located before adhering price tags, perhaps black-market value or as merchandise sold to hospitals. Most provocative is when naked dancers appear smashed in the very tight window space within the set’s wall. Magically they ascend or descend, crawling and climbing over each other, bodies piling up, bodies pushed down like a colony of termites or the incidental corporeal stockpiling of humanity in Hieronymus Bosch paintings. Numerous intense images of the body being exploited, sometimes by men in dark suits, take place often with a sly dark humor and whimsical nature. “Körper” is not lacking for humor and is always smartly devastating.
The embodied choreography is often athletic, stunning montages come and go always with a swift and precise sense of timing. Nothing is over indulged, everything makes its aesthetic and symbolic statement as one after another counter grouping of manipulating bodies or image appears. A man on ski mounts the very top of the wall before skiing down its face, just before the wall itself falls, missing a dancer by inches with a thunderous thud. White ceramic diner plates are stacked on numerous hands hidden behind a lead dancer, suggesting the alignment and misalignment of the spine as if being adjusted by a Hindu deity. Water appears to be rung out of dancers, eggs are hatched from a man’s torso, and the visceral image of a heart or spleen being removed from an incision in another man’s chest are all part of the macabre magic and self-effacing nudity. Four stories are told by different performers, at different segments of the dance, each pointing or grabbing different parts of their bodies as they name a contrary part of their body. Waltz designed the choreography based on the various systems of the human body, starting with bones, moving to fluids, and onto the nervous system when the full company of 13 dancers kinetically rise and fall in repetitive unison to four directions.
When not fully naked, dancers were clad in Jasmine Lepore’s smart costuming, see-through suits, full-length black skirts and robes, black vest, black or white panties. Costume changes were often subtle and complemented Olaf Danilsen’s dramatic stark white lighting. “Körper” has the aesthetic, commanding staging and execution of the Nederlands Dans Theater, the absurdity, humor, and sensationalism of Pina Bausch, and the muscular athleticism and boundary-pushing group interactions of Pilobolus. Yet, “Körper” is a masterwork all its own that maintains its highly creative dignity throughout its hour and a half performance and throughout the 18 years since its premier.
David E. Moreno