An imposing black wall about 35 feet high, with a huge window carved out of its center, dominates the bare stage. One dancer, pressed against the glass, wriggles sideways. Suddenly, a pair of legs drops into the frame, slithering down, the beginning of a human avalanche -- eleven dancers before the sequence ends -- that eventually crowds this mysterious display case with semi-nude bodies that overlap, intertwine, and separate in a series of hypnotic friezes.
This visceral tangle of humanity is just the beginning of choreographer Sasha Waltz's astonishing Körper ("Bodies"), which receives its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival on November 13. Waltz tends to be described as the new Pina Bausch -- the stunningly inventive dance-theater veteran and fellow German who's been a Next Wave standard-bearer almost since its inception in 1983. Waltz is weary of the comparisons.
"Pina was not in my frame of reference," she says, bristling with a hint of Oedipal defiance. Still, as we sit in one of the cluttered offices of the Schaubühne, her theatrical home base in Berlin, it's impossible to avoid the thought that in her bright red dress with matching lipstick, Waltz looks as if she might have just escaped from Bausch's Carnations. You can't avoid the intensity and sharply focused intelligence that radiate from her like an energy field. "I'm coming much more from an American line," she insists.
A 39-year-old choreographer who has been co-director of the Schaubühne since 1999, Waltz is reclaiming an art form that suffers from a dearth of dance and lousy theater. She does admit to studying briefly with a pupil of Mary Wigman, the founder of German expressionist dance theater, of which Bausch is the avatar. More significant, however, was a mid-eighties stay at the New School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, where she was seduced by American postmodernist dance. She then decided to pursue her dance education in New York for a year. She cites as influences the work of Merce Cunningham, the Judson Church movement, and Trisha Brown, whom she calls "one of my heroes very early on."
But post-wall Berlin, reinventing itself at breakneck speed, turned out to be the perfect fit for Waltz. She was born in Karlsruhe in 1963, one of five children, and started dancing as a child. Through her father, an architect, she became interested in the relationship between bodies and the space around them. She founded Sasha Waltz and Guests in 1993, and over three years created the Travelogue Trilogy, a comical series in which much of the movement was inspired by Buster Keaton movies. By 1996, she landed her own theater, the Sophiensaele, a 100-year-old ballroom where she created Allee der Kosmonauten and Zweiland, two works that grapple with Germany's split and reunification. This grabbed the attention of the intelligentsia, and in 1999, Waltz was appointed choreographer and co-director of the Schaubühne, a high-profile theater not unlike BAM, but now with a good dose of the Joyce thrown in.
The gamble paid off: It was there that Waltz created Körper (and its sequels, to make another trilogy). "She is constantly challenging herself with her own fears and curiosity," says Jochen Sandig, another co-director of the Schaubühne and Waltz's longtime partner offstage as well, adding that "she discovered a new depth in her work" with Körper.
Much of that depth derives from waltz's unconventional creative process -- which she describes, in the case of Körper, as "What can we crazily discover about our body and its possibilities?"
"I don't work from an abstract choreographic idea," she says. "And I have a need to find imagery." The theme in Körper is "the body in history, in science, in architecture." The last is significant, as Waltz is arguably the most space-sensitive choreographer working today. In developing Körper, she did a set of choreographic sketches in the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, a disorienting zigzag designed by Daniel Liebeskind.
"It was a very intense experience for me as a German," explains Waltz. "Liebeskind found for me such an incredible metaphor: the void -- the empty space -- for the memory of all the people who have died. As an artist, I always feel drawn to digest and rethink German Jewish history. This project was definitely forcing me into it."
Despite several eerie images, however, Körper is no grim meditation on the Holocaust. Like Mark Morris, Waltz dares to be silly, and gets away with it. In their mini-monologues, the dancers are constantly misidentifying body parts, mistaking a nose for an elbow and the like; a dancer actually skis down that black wall; two women circle certain organs with lipstick and yell out prices. In one extraordinary sequence, as hilarious as it is unnerving, Waltz creates several hybrid creatures, mounting one dancer on the waist of another who is walking backward. Later, the grotesque creature is transformed into a kind of multilimbed Indian deity as dancers hidden behind it constantly reassemble porcelain plates to create a spinal column.
"It took quite some time until these images occurred," Waltz says. "It's a collaborative process with dancers. We play, improvise, experiment. I always want to work on something that I actually don't understand. I try to capture something about that. For me, dance is like a dream."