Sasha Waltz & Guests’ Körper (2000) is a wild, wonderful ride; a truly epic piece of contemporary performance that you must see if you get the chance. In English, körper means ‘body’, and so, as one might guess, the ninety-minute tour de force, directed and choreographed by Sasha Waltz, turns its eye to the body in space. Through a series of mixed discipline chapters, perceptions of the body, expectations of the body, assumptions about the body and viewership of the body are challenged. Some moments are shocking; some are quite funny. Some images made me flinch; at others, I gasped. Regardless of what was happening on stage, one thing remained true – I wanted to watch. Based on the roaring positive response during the bows, I think patrons on Saturday night agreed. Together we witnessed Körper’s untamed twists and turns as Cal Performances welcomed the work for a two-show engagement at Zellerbach Hall.
Körper triumphs on two fronts. First, it is the epitome of the Dance Theater form, using all the tenets and compositional devices for which Dance Theater is known: repetition, accumulation, distortion, absurdity, shock, even a little bit of humour. Second, its ideas and concepts are not so abstracted as to be inaccessible to the audience. You leave the performance with a sense of what Waltz was trying to impart about the body in space, and that doesn’t always happen when it comes to Dance Theater. I might go so far as to say it doesn’t happen that often at all.
If Körper’s first ten minutes taught its audience anything, it was to leave behind any and all preconceptions. As the piece began, every theatre door was wide open, noise bled in from the lobby, the house lights were up and latecomers (so, so many of them!) filed in with absolutely no urgency. During this commotion, two company members repeatedly walked and bowed in front of a large theatre flat. Out of the blue, a cluster of hands reached through the seemingly solid wall. Then a ponytail. Then a leg. The message – be prepared for the unpredictable.
What followed was certainly unpredictable, including the fact that choreography played a very small role in Körper’s first hour. Instead, most of the vignettes fell more into the theater or performance art camp. One memorable scene was all about visual perspective. Ever so slowly, performers crawled into a see-through vertical box. At first, there was a clear distinction between the bottom and top of the large rectangle. But as the company continued to explore the structure, entering from all facets and using the front of the box to prop themselves up, the set shape seemed to transform before our eyes. Suddenly they were swimming through space like marine life in an aquarium. A number of text-based soliloquies found cast members describing parts and actions of the body. Upending convention, as they referenced one area, they would point somewhere else entirely – the word stomach would be met with a gesture of the elbow, for example. In another duet, the outlines of organs were drawn on the body and then slapped with a price tag. Teacup saucers acted as conduits for the spinal column. And there was a repellent moment where medical staff drained fluid out of bodies. A wild ride indeed.
Following a frenetic, full ensemble scene, I was pretty sure the dance had reached its conclusion. A stuffed animal had met an untimely end, someone had ice-skated on the non-ice stage surface, performers had pulsed uncontrollably and a man had skied (with actual skis and poles) down the large theatre flat, after which it abruptly and dramatically crashed to the ground. It seemed a fitting and ideal end, but then I realized that we were only an hour into the work. Much more was still to come.
I was torn by this last third. After that climax, Körper’s final half hour felt like a long, somewhat drawn-out epilogue. But at the same time, the last third was heavier on dance and choreography. Having only seen minimal dance thus far, I was craving some stylized movement, and the material was well worth it. Certainly because of the steps, phrases and sequences, but also because it was the first time that an atmosphere of tenderness and trust made an appearance. This shift in mood was ushered in by a caring, passionate duet inspired by contact improvisation. I don’t think the performers were actually improvising (though I might be wrong), but the choreography definitely had that flavor. An aura of mutual support was palpable. Both partners gave and received weight, different parts of the body acted as contact points between the two, even some geometric Cunningham vocabulary was peppered throughout. In true Dance Theater style, the scene accumulated, growing into a quartet and eventually into a large group section. The whole stage radiated an undeniable sense of calm and togetherness. What a departure from the rest of Körper! And yet, this calm amidst the storm fits right in – another divine moment of unpredictability.