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melbourne international arts festival


a fistful of skin

jana perkovic: sasha waltz, melbourne international arts festival


Medea, Sasha Waltz & Guests Medea, Sasha Waltz & Guests
photo Sebastian Bolesch
Medea, Sasha Waltz & Guests Medea, Sasha Waltz & Guests
photo Sebastian Bolesch
Medea, Sasha Waltz & Guests Medea, Sasha Waltz & Guests
photo Sebastian Bolesch
Körper, Sasha Waltz & Guests Körper, Sasha Waltz & Guests
photo Bernd Uhlig
THE FIRST CHOREOGRAPHIC BARS START WHILE THE AUDIENCE IS STILL ENTERING, PROMPTING THE MOST MESMERISING MOMENT IN THIS YEAR’S ENTIRE MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL. FOR PERHAPS 10 MINUTES, HUNDREDS OF MELBURNIANS FILL THE STATE THEATRE IN UNCANNY SILENCE. NOT EVEN LATER INTRUSIONS OF DANCERS INTO THE AUDITORIUM WILL BE AS EFFECTIVE IN REMINDING THE AUDIENCE OF ITS SHEER NUMBERS, OF THE STRENGTH AND THE NOISE AND THE BRUTE PHYSICAL VOLUME OF THE HUNDREDS OF US. KÖRPER (“BODIES”), SASHA WALTZ’S EARLY MASTERPIECE, IMMEDIATELY MAKES ITS POINT: WE ARE BUT BODIES IN SPACE.

A giant leap forward from her earliest work, which amplified the hysterical banality of everyday existence, Körper is a solemn and minimal piece, inspired by Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. It is a Holocaust-informed work, a bitter showdown with modernism. Foucault proposed that the modern state was based on biopolitics. Nation state was a line drawn around people proclaimed homogeneous. The focus of state power shifted towards creating its citizens. Suddenly, human beings were carded, identified, examined and sorted, vaccinated, educated, surveilled, relocated, detained and sometimes exterminated. Viewed this way, the Nazi concentration camp was nothing but the endpoint of the modernist dramatic arc: eugenics, scientific experiments, violence and mass death nothing but the obsessive reiteration of state power over the human body.

Körper is a solipsistic dance, looking at its own means of production: body literalised; body as matter. Waltz piles up dancers into a glass box: they wiggle and squirm like Klimt’s fish, planar, somnolent. They are held by a fistful of skin, or stacked like bricks in a wall. When pressed they bleed and squirt water. Two women point at each other’s body parts, naming the price their organs would fetch. Dancers tell Bauschian stories of everyday life as lived by their bodies, pointing incorrectly at each body part mentioned: anatomical vertigo builds up as the story-telling accelerates. Pancreas on one’s elbow, two arms outstretched into a digestive system, lungs on the lower back, vomiting from one’s eyes.

The incessant banality of these associations, the refusal to turn bodies into signifying matter, the wilful lack of sophistication, is what makes this powerful dance universally legible. It reveals, in light both harsh and gentle, the fluidity, strength, fragility and resilience of the human body. There is no culture that lacks the knowledge of the body as presented in Körper, a body of flesh and fluids, of fatigue and illness, of uncertain life and uncertain death.

Unquestionably brilliant, Körper received both standing ovations and critical acclaim. Yet, having premiered in 2000, some scenes already fray at the edges with 90s mannerisms: cacophonic, atomised groupwork; a duet of erotic aggression. Crucially, it is a dance made before 9/11: a dance for a time which had forgotten or doubted the materiality of the body; a time which demanded that theatre, that beatbox of reality, pinch and twist real limbs, let real blood. This tough love may have been, at its premiere, paradoxically affirmative. It arrived to MIAF, nonetheless, as a love letter from an already distant past.

More relevant would have been the subsequent parts of the body trilogy, the erotic S (2000) or noBody (2002), in which a post 9/11 body emerges. Mirroring the reluctant, embarrassed detention, classification and torture of asylum seekers, war prisoners, illegal immigrants—sad, but necessary gestures of state power, performed out of protocol, rather than faith—Sasha Waltz’s bodies were now heavy detritus, easily extended, deformed, exhausted, but nonetheless lingered on, inertly resisting disappearance. In place of fragile, but sculpturally dignified bodies in Körper, they became redundant, mere waste.

Medea, the choreo-operatic spectacle that opened the festival, received significantly less audience enthusiasm: premiering only in 2007, it was harder to immediately glimpse the quality of innovation that has not yet mineralised into convention. It shows a new direction for Waltz, an interest in musical and choreographic narrative, started with Dido & Aeneas, her first choreographic opera, in 2005. It opens with a red curtain collapsing, and the dancing ensemble gently rolling onto the stage, bare but for a single-note hum from the orchestra, relentlessly painting the desert of hope that surrounds Medea, the scorned woman and murderer of her own children.

The work achieves a remarkable distantiation: far from a tabloid shocker, Medea is a layered contemplation of irrational violence, relying on the audience’s familiarity with the myth. Pascal Dusapin wrote a chunkily dissonant score for a baroque orchestra, giving Caroline Stein crystalline high notes to the lonely desperation of a woman in a foreign land, abandoned by her husband for a political alliance; a perfunctory barbarian, a stranger. In an interview, Dusapin compared Medea to Faust: a gambler who raises the stakes too high and loses. Heiner Muller, whose Medeamaterial, the middle part of his Argonaut triptych, is used as a libretto by Waltz and Dusapin, saw it as a post-colonial tragedy, of a savage woman seduced “on the bodies bones graves of my people”, stranded between two worlds, neither of which is accessible any longer. For Waltz, who, influenced by Christa Wolf’s feminist re-reading, stresses that Medea was unlikely to have murdered her own children, Euripides’ tragedy is a patriarchal rewriting, revenge over retreating matriarchy, punishing the feared and loathed female.

The Australian audience, better versed in emotional than cerebral theatre, was left to navigate multiple planes of fine meaning making. Rather than tickling the audience into sentimental catharsis, Waltz builds an emotionally complex narrative, all stodgy grief and fatigued revenge. Deceleration into the operatic largo becomes Muller’s complex text, allowing us to take in its dense poetry. Surrounded by a flurry of dancers, Medea is the only speaking character on stage, Jason and Nurse reduced to voices off-stage.

Again, the choreography is architecture-inspired: throughout the opera it mirrors the logic of a frieze, with multiple groups of three or four dancers forming tableaux, each a symbolic representation of the events, or with individuals occasionally dancing a character. As in Körper, Waltz fondly employs simple stage tricks: Glauce, Jason’s young bride, is stripped naked and dressed in a poisoned white gown on stage, and dances while red dye seeps out of her long necklace, smearing both her and Jason with blood. Stein is seldom engulfed by the dancers, joining and splitting away from the stage images, and the choir steps onto the stage for the finale, a thundering, condemning weight of bodies, breaking any separation that may build between the narration and the illustration of the myth. It sounds naff, but it is a heart-wrenchingly sophisticated work, heroically simple in its idea and remarkably original in its execution. The climax, with six enormous industrial fans building a hurricane on stage, the entire theatre trembling to their hum, is devastating without being either melodramatic or obscure. As the bodies of her children (played by Waltz’s own) are taken away, and Jason’s voice calls for her, Medea coolly cuts herself off from the tragedy: “Nurse, who is that man?”

In Körper, each stage moment is a collage, rather than a balanced composition of the parts. Multiple unrelated scenes will unfold simultaneously, sometimes in harmony, sometimes clashing. Medea is more carefully composed, a Gesamtkunstwerk, demanding wide focus but rewarding amply. Yet both pieces wear Waltz’s choreographic heart on their sleeve. Stage images often so simple as to resemble either puritan comedy, or the earnestness of children, offset and modulate the grave emotions and vivid intelligence permeating her work. These works are unlike anything I have seen: mature without being cumbersome, playful without a moment of frill. In a festival particularly strong on dance, they stood head and shoulders above all else. Waltz’s first, overdue visit to Australia has shown local dance a completely new sensibility.


Sasha Waltz and Guests, Körper, direction, choreography Sasha Waltz, design Thomas Schenk, Heike Schuppelius, Sasha Waltz, costumes Bernd Skodzig, music Hans Peter Kuhn, lighting Valentin Gallé, Martin Hauk, performance Sasha Waltz dancers, State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Oct 15-17; Medea, choreography Sasha Waltz, music Pascal Dusapin, text Heiner Müller, performers Caroline Stein and Sasha Waltz dancers, State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Oct 9-12; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 9-25

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 6

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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