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Tableaux Vivants

Körper” is a study of the human body, a deep-dive into its physical form as well as the outside forces that shape our grasp on anatomy, sexuality and mortality. Sasha Waltz, one of Germany’s foremost dance theatre choreographers, created the work in 2000 as the first in a trilogy, and it’s since toured some 50-odd cities, dividing audiences around the world with its unyielding pitch and arduous manoeuvring.

Performance

Sasha Waltz & Guests: “Körper”

Place

Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, March 1-3, 2018

Words

Sara Veale

Sasha Waltz and Guests performing “Körper.” Photograph by Bernd Uhlig

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An angled standalone wall focalises the 90-minute piece, a nucleus for its 13 performers to probe, mount and eventually capsize. The opening sees two men approach the wall, pulled in by curious flapping within its crevices, and from here ensues a succession of modern dance sequences and oblique snippets of physical theatre and spoken word. The production lurches from scene to scene, stitching them together with fraught motifs: stacks of bodies, manipulated forms, rogue limbs and exposed breasts.

The material frequently circles back to the idea of possession, with body parts fiercely guarded at times and up for sale at others, like a sketch in which two women affix price tags to their organs: €52k for a heart, €77k for a pair of lungs. Fragmentation is another recurring theme—arms poking through holes in the wall, legs and torsos rearranged to form strange creatures—as is exploitation, with glimpses of people being manhandled, their balance cast askew. And anxiety over appearance is made manifest with electronic scrawls that broadcast individuals’ weight like sports stats. “This is my body. I didn’t choose it,” a woman proclaims as she catalogues her own height and weight, her “small mouth” and persistent “feel[ing] that I am inside another body.”

The climax is a writhing tableau within the wall. Clad in nothing but white briefs, the ensemble wriggles up and through a glass-fronted crawl space, feet on faces, faces in crotches, trembling en masse like some many-tentacled organism. It’s an absurdist, sweaty spectacle that enthrals and repulses in equal measure.

Collectively, these portraits of disquiet—which play out against a soundtrack of primordial, plug-sucking plonks and industrial whooshes and twangs—pose some interesting questions about commodity and objectification. But it’s hard to focus on these amid the show’s laundry list of stale performance art clichés: stylised nudity, drawn-out bouts of silence, nonsensical monologues, inexplicable props, assaultive lighting. The intensity might be more digestible were it not so lacking in warmth. I can’t help but compare it to the work of Pina Bausch, that other bastion of tanztheater, and feel it comes up stonier, with less personality and wit.

“Körper” is not without its moments of conviction, though. The sustained dance sequences, while scattered thin, are rich in verve, the group thumping like beasts one moment and soaring like sprites the next. And Waltz has an eye for uncanny imagery and theatricality, envisaging a violent chiropractic adjustment out of cleverly manipulated pieces of crockery and orchestrating a momentous collapse of the wall, knocking a rush of air into those of us in the stalls.

An interval would offer a welcome break from the production’s severe tenor, while some more feeling would ground it, staving off the impersonal air clouding many of its sketches. As it stands, the work registers as more of an intellectual exercise than a product of passion.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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