Several minutes before curtain time, people are still shuffling down the aisles to their seats when they notice that something is already happening up on the stage of the BAM Opera House. A couple of black-garbed figures are busy doing what dancers do -- rolling around, pushing each other here and there -- looking very industrious and completely impersonal as they stride about. Behind them is a huge black wall with a small hole in it. A couple of hands are poking through the hole, waving at us, perhaps engaged in their own little dance. How cute! But those hands . . . they're so frantic . . . someone could be trying to escape or calling for help. The dancers are paying no heed. Suddenly, the hands are gone; now there's an arm protruding through the hole, and now a leg sticks out, bare and helpless. If this is a warm-up, it's utterly chilling.
The news that a Next Wave Festival choreographer was being hailed as the new Pina Bausch wouldn't have inspired me, for one, to lead a stampede to Brooklyn; but what a mistake it would have been to miss out on Sasha Waltz. Their work does have similarities -- both artists like a big, bleak stage full of inscrutable carryings-on -- but while Bausch turns out endless productions fixated on death and underwear, Waltz is blessed with a brilliant theatrical imagination and the talent to edit it. The 90-minute dance that received its American premiere at BAM two weeks ago is called Körper, or Bodies, and it unfolds in a series of mesmerizing scenarios that reveal not only Waltz's gift for stagecraft but also her eye for the truly creepy.
Thirteen bodies, often bare or nearly so, make up the materials for Körper, and it's clear that while they're human, they have no role in nature anymore. An industrial ethos seems to govern the stage as we watch bodies obediently disintegrate. Now and then, a dancer steps forward and recites a story about himself or herself, pointing to an ear, an elbow, or a foot as the story proceeds. Invariably, they affix the wrong name to each part they mention. Or two women set about annotating one another, marking their organs in red and shouting out a price. "Lungs, $77,000! Kidneys, $54,588.01!" In an interlude that's the closest this dance comes to charming, a woman whose bottom half is a pair of male legs that happen to be turned around backward encounters a man with the same affliction. Meanwhile, a sound score by Hans Peter Kuhn emits clangs and hisses that turn the opera house into a factory.
Perhaps the scariest dimension of the dance emerges in a set piece that Waltz stages early on. In the middle of the black wall that towers over the stage, a large window is illuminated, and splayed across it are semi-nude bodies -- first two, then more, and still more. Some bodies edge into the lighted space from the sides of the window, and others descend slowly from the top, stretching and curling and tilting like so many amoebae seen under a microscope. Bare and silent, they could be the sinners in a hell imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, but they're strangely impassive as they struggle and collide.
Audiences are always voyeurs; here, uncomfortably, we're scientists as well, gazing coolly at human specimens pinned under glass. At moments like this, the Holocaust seems to hover near, but Waltz doesn't need explicit references to German history to make a point about the science of dehumanization. Later on, there's an expressionless man in blue briefs who -- with amazing trompe l'oeil -- pulls forth white eggs from his body, watches his heart burst from his chest, and bleeds water until he's wrung dry. He makes that point just fine.
Clearly, silver linings aren't on Waltz's must-include list; but she offers one image that makes a notably cheering suggestion about art. (Or maybe she doesn't, but I'm going to read it that way.) The dancers walk on their toes across the rear of the stage, arms outstretched, and as they pass, they leave a white trail on the wall at shoulder level. Each is carrying chalk, it turns out. Each is wearing a scarf made of jangling little bells, so there's a musical trail as well. Aha! Dance leaves a mark, after all. Art survives, creativity triumphs. As I say, Waltz might have quite a different moral in mind for Körper, but I like this one.