THE PERILS OF THE FLESH
Sasha Waltz & Guests
As part of their much-welcome “Women’s Work” series, Cal Performances recently brought Sasha Waltz & Guests’ provocative dance “Körper” to Berkeley. “Women’s Work,” the latest instalment (titled with definite tongue in cheek) in the “Berkeley RADICAL” series, brings a much-needed corrective to what has too often been a male-dominated world.
As an unapologetic straight white Eurocentric male myself (to put my cards smartly on the table), I applaud, and cheer, the impulse behind this. The modern world has been over-driven by testosterone since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and the autocratic isms that have followed, beginning not least with capitalism, and has left us careening toward an Armageddon of our own making. More than ever before, the world needs a woman’s touch – the deep generosity of woman’s concern for the vulnerable, for others besides themselves; an essentialism that I suspect not even the most deep-dyed feminist will deny, at least privately. What bothers me about feminism, however, is that it too often has bought into the masculinist, and hubristic, assumptions of liberalism, voluntarism, individualism, modernity and the Enlightenment project, and by doing so merely has strengthened the chains that bind us all. Some feminists do not seem to realize that their liberation – and our salvation – requires that we overcome, and replace, modernity itself. Otherwise it will not be merely our souls that are lost.
Which brings us back to Sasha Waltz’s “Körper,” a dance that brings a vital feminine mind to an examination of the modern – or is that the eternal? – human body.
“Körper” is German for “bodies,” but the cognate with “corpses” in English is justified (as shown in the latter half of the dance, which examines the dead body and its spiritual avatars); but it is the theme of life, its force, its vulnerability, its ambiguity, its long, witty joke on matter, that dominates.
The question of what the body “really is” – this thing we are born with, that organizes our identity and our fate, and which we try to manipulate and control, from cosmetics to steroids, to fashion, to tattoos, to reassignment surgery, to say nothing of the surgeries of reinvention of the future; all of these pursued more or less futilely, since we cannot change the one thing about our body that we most want to – its mortality – that ultimate question of fleshly human identity is placed before us in all its rude nudity.
The 90-minute work begins with a brief, witty bit of ante-dance, which takes place as the audience is being seated and features a black standalone wall (which will turn into a character in its own right in the piece), several men in business attire and a Cocteau-like leg stuck right through the wall and gesturing about like a lively sconce: preparing us for a work that happily displays as much wit as it does conceptual heavy lifting.
What follows is a series of scenes – dances, exercises, acrobatic and contortionist routines, curious speeches (riffing off surreal reapportionments of the male and female anatomy), Dada-esque escapades, and tableaux vivants (and mourants). These are performed by a dozen dancers, most of them topless, at least one entirely nude, a few in middle-class business uniforms or in whimsical costume. The entire dance is performed to a score (by Hans Peter Kuhn) of industrial thumping and grinding, mechanical hammering, amplified water-drop plunks and roaring wind and rhythmic silences, with a few tender whiffs of accordion to lighten up the proceedings.
There are memorable scenes: an early one inside a small box across which the dancers, crammed in on top of one another, slowly creep and crawl about and seem at times to levitate: not so much persons as accumulations of objectivized body parts.
In another, a dancer wearing a voluminous skirt seems to have her legs on backward, with her heels forward; a second dancer, a male, totters forward, undergoing the same dilemma, and the two proceed through a bizarre and touching pas de deux, eventually crumbling apart and revealing the two actual dancers of which each composite dancer was made: a clever symbol of the multiplicity of persons, often with conflicting agendas, inhabiting each human body.
In yet another scene, in near total darkness, a spectral procession parades near the back, scrawling long lines in chalk against a black back wall; they halt and draw great circles and crosses, symbols ancient, enigmatic, yet curiously universal, with an emotional profundity, though rational meanings just beyond one’s grasp: grave marks on a long black tombstone.
And there are many more such scenes, of dazzling complexity, or poignant, or witty (or sometimes both) simplicity, each absorbing and lingering in memory.
But, as a whole, the dance suffers from two serious problems: a certain repetitiousness and a lack of effective overall dramatic construction. I make my living as an editor of words (books, etc.), but I have rarely had such a strong urge to edit a dance, both individual numbers (there was one scene where the bodies were stacked up about the stage like logs, or like corpses in a death camp – point taken! – but interminably, self-indulgently (moral self-indulgence is quite as bad the sybaritic varieties), not to say ineffectively) and the work as a whole.
At about the half-way mark, there is a powerful coup de théâtre that seemed to set the audience up for a strong coda and conclusion; instead, the piece went on for what felt like an hour, rehashing old themes, and diluting the work’s impact, so that by the end I felt relieved rather than satisfied or inspired, and just a little cranky (a crankiness shared by several others in the audience, judging from some of the comments I heard while leaving).
But perhaps this is only the male in me speaking. One can criticize some men for wanting too much to please themselves, and perhaps some women for wanting too much to please everyone. The latter weakness is certainly more endearing, but, with its struggle between ethics and esthetics, with ethics winning in the end, it can lead to less-effective art. Morality and politics have always been the enemies of art.
The choreography of “Körper” displays a mix of styles so great as to seem at times incoherent; then I noticed in the program that the dancers are also styled as “choreographers,” which would at least partly explain the stylistic eclecticism.
One last criticism, and I will go home. As already mentioned, most of the dancers are topless, wearing white short pants. The value of nudity as provocation and naughty avant-gardism is long gone; the thematic reason for so much of it here is obvious, but I think not good enough. Clearly, the intent is to present the vulnerability, strangeness, mystery (how can such a thing have evolved, all accidentally, into a vehicle of mind?), and the sheer aceity, the “thisness,” of the human body, not to excite sexual feelings. The problem is the monotony of the human body. The right naked body, at the right place and the right time, is unforgettable; a dozen can grow tedious with surprising speed.
So the verdict is mixed. I am glad I saw it, and recommend it to serious aficionados of modern dance. It is not for everyone, or for the faint of heart.
Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.