Sasha Waltz and Guests: Waltz in a box

Posted: October 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Sasha Waltz and Guests: Waltz in a box

sketch of 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe

Sasha Waltz & Guests, Continu, Sadler’s Wells, September 28

In 1928, the German architect Mies van der Rohe was commissioned to design the German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition. The building became known as the Barcelona Pavilion. In writing about his design, van der Rohe expressed his belief in the ‘necessity of incorporating works of sculpture (or painting) creatively into the interior setting from the outset. In the great epochs of cultural history this was done by architects as a matter of course and, no doubt, without conscious reflection.’ Photographs and sketches of the Barcelona Pavilion show an open plan structure with unadorned vertical and horizontal planes that give a sense of infinite freedom of movement. Standing in a pool of water is a female form, a statue by Georg Kolbe that van der Rohe incorporated in his plan. What is interesting − and pertinent to Sasha Waltz’s work − is that the architectural space is defined by the sculptural form, and at the same time the sculptural form is enhanced by the architectural space.

Waltz is clearly engaged in this play of sculptural quality in an architectural setting, using her dancers as sculptural elements and theatres or non-theatre spaces as her architecture. Parts of Continu,the work she presented at Sadler’s Wells last week, were first created for the opening of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, and others for the opening of David Chipperfield’s reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin, a stunning space in part recreated and in part restored from the original nineteenth century structure of Friedrich August Stüler. I can only imagine what Waltz’s work might have looked like in the Neues Museum, with its variety of architectural elements, the different materials and, above all, the light. Museums and galleries are all about light, and it is often natural, as in Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary Museum in Margate and the Barcelona Pavilion itself. As the director Robert Wilson said recently, “Without light there is no space.”

Transferring Continu from such architectural spaces to the traditional proscenium stage at Sadler’s Wells must have taken some rearrangement and reinvention. The bare black walls and white floor (conceived by Thomas Schenk, Pia Maier Schriever and Sasha Waltz) make the stage as large as it can be without being bare, but there is very little space for the dancers to get on and off stage. Apart from the two doors built into the side walls at the back, there are two awkward gaps at the front end of the wings on either side of the stage that tend to constrict the flow of movement. At the end of the first act, the two men run off the front of the stage into the auditorium. It is the only quick escape possible.

Continu is in two acts with three movements; each movement is built around music by 20th century avant-garde composers: the first is to Rebonds ‘B’ by Iannis Xenakis played with choreographic wizardry by Robyn Schulkowsky; then Xenakis’ Concret PH leads to three works by Edgard Varèse (Arcana, Hyperprism, Ionisation) that form the core of the second movement, and the third movement comprises Zipangu by Claude Vivier along with a musical anomaly, the adagio from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, played almost too quietly to be heard, like a breeze wafting in through the window from a neighbouring room. The music sets the scale of each movement, and at the same time, Waltz’s settings allow the music an appropriate context for us to appreciate these rarely heard works.

Music and dance in Continu are spatial elements in dynamic juxtaposition. The vast resources of the Varèse music (requiring in live performance 120 musicians and a panoply of percussion) swirl around the space, sometimes massed together, and sometimes splitting into streams of sound, just as the dancers often merge into a group from which smaller groups derive, couples form, or from which a necklace of dancers extends around the perimeter walls. The percussive music of Xenakis (who was an architect as well as composer) is more like a structural element, around which Waltz creates her own spatial rhythms. Architectural space would normally be an equal element in the choreography, but here at Sadler’s Wells that element is missing, giving a sense that Continu has been squeezed into a box that is a couple of sizes too small. When the movement sequences are performed in silence, the dance and the space remain in equilibrium, but when the forces of the Varèse (in particular) are unleashed, the combined scale and energy of music and dance overflows the limits of the stage.

The twenty-three dancers are all mature performers, an international mix that has individuality and yet forms a harmonious group. They do what all good dancers do: they move beautifully and Waltz moulds them beautifully into flowing forms, enhanced by Martin Hauk’s superb lighting that washes the interior space in a bright, diffused light. Some dancers stand out like accents in the course of the evening: Delphine Gaborit in the first movement, and Niannian Zhou in the second, measuring herself at one point with a fine, imaginary thread. Edivaldo Ernesto has remarkable muscular control that Waltz exploits in his exuberant, jester-like solo in the second movement that is pure delight. Virgis Puodziunas is a tower of strength and intensity, while Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola has the kind of presence that can anchor an entire performance. In the execution sequence at the end of the first half, he is the only one who could outlive the executioner.

It is as sculptural elements that the dancers really shine, and the way they interact is key. Waltz doesn’t seem to be interested in virtuoso performance, but in the harmony of all the elements. In this she is perhaps more in line with Bronislava Nijinska than with Pina Bausch, to whom Waltz is often compared. In the opening movement, the women in their loose, black dresses and bare limbs, carve out sensuous shapes with their torsos and rippling arms; the four men at the beginning of the second half − Shang-Chi Sun has a remarkably articulated, turned-in solo at the beginning − are like nude sculptures in a gallery: figures by Henry Moore with fingers and toes. In some of their forms they might even pass for structural elements…until they clap their feet. Apart from these four, the dancers are fully clothed by Bernd Skodzig, whose stylish costumes are drawn from a narrow palette of colours. The only problem for me is the unfortunate association of his shade of brown with the livery of United Parcel Service.

The third movement has a different quality from the first two: a smaller scale with more narrative elements. The use of a chorus of dancers brings to mind a setting of a Greek tragedy with the lone, almost naked figure of Orlando Rodriguez as Orestes. Three women supported on the shoulders of their partners walk horizontally along the side walls; Xuan Shi in black shuffles in a figure-of-eight pattern around the perimeter, while two women paint their path on the floor with black and red paint on the souls of their feet. Shi then adds to the design with a charcoal stick, drawing around whatever feet are in his way. Ernesto seems to be giving more instructions, drawing in space, after which the chorus retreats, leaving six dancers at the back who pick up the upstage edge of the floor above their heads so we see only their hands. The floor and its design now forms a backdrop to a final, soft duet with Todd McQuade and Zaratiana Randrianantenaina to the Mozart quartet, after which the scale of movement reduces even further to the rapid passage of six pairs of hands along the top edge of the floor to one corner, leaving the other corner wilting. Ernesto lifts this corner above his head and runs with it diagonally across the stage, creating a billowing wave of white behind him that, as he kneels, envelops him in its undertow. The life has disappeared; all that is left is the empty box.