Körper by Sasha Waltz and Hans Peter Kuhn reads like a classical masterpiece, an extraordinary performance that retains immediate relevance now. One of the closing programmes of Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Körper is restrained and epic, its formal compositional structure suggesting it will be an enduring work of dance theatre.
Körper begins and ends gently, though it also unfolds in ways that are hard-hitting, painful, even violent at times. When the audience enters, we see a massive vertical wall: two male dancers moving in sharp, militaristic ways, disappearing and reappearing from behind the wall as though following some clockwork command. A woman’s long hair slips out through a tiny hole in the wall, then her hands, a leg. Fingers poke out of an even tinier peephole elsewhere, like sea anemone — the wall itself teems with life. Created 20 years ago in Berlin, 11 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, this simple architectural object, the wall, continues to capture the public’s political imagination and build political strife.
Körper (which means body in German) proposes the wall as a body – in quite the same way that a human body, physical objects, sounds, social groups, exist as bodies too. Hans Peter Kuhn’s sound score is a body sharing in the space, evoking typewriters, surgical scopes, wind tunnels, a distorted old recording of street accordions. In seeking to abstract the human within an architectural and philosophical framework, each image and gesture suggests more than its immediate political reading. The first appearance of a female body is literally as a display piece. She wears a digital marquee board around her chest, words flashing red in many languages to ask the audience to switch off all mobile phones. This marks the official beginning of most shows — the audience lights dim, we are safe in our darkness. The body as an extension of technology — and vice versa — but also, why is the woman on nearly-naked display while the men perform unorthodox drills in suits? Why is the East Asian-looking man wearing a suit that has hints of a kimono, then later wears a skirt? When dancers create unusual structures with their bodies, timed perfectly to reveal the complex spatial dynamics between them, their bodies become one — until a detail, like a flip of a skirt as though it were a hakama in a Kabuki play, reveals individual difference. When a group of bodies pivot, rotate, lift, perfectly together, literally embodying ideal connectivity, the choreographer’s attention to detail helps us resist reducing the individual person to a bot, a replaceable thing.
A beautiful layer of this work is that 9 out of 13 performers are from the original cast who collaborated in its creation. Körper has surely taken on the stories of their lives, as relationships have grown, artists have had children — on stage the quality of attention each person brought kept the audience on edge. When we see Sasha Waltz & Guests (rather than a ballet company, who might have the work in their repertoire) perform Körper, the work also takes on the layer of dealing with the body as an ageing being.
Yet within the storied humanity behind Körper, a body is sometimes a medical object, a thing with harvestable organs that can be traded for a price. The performers’ nudity is a function of this approach. Nudity is not used to suggest sensuality, but rather Waltz says “this piece is really about looking at the body like a doctor. You don’t go to the doctor and keep your clothes on.” In a world where the gender of bodies is politically contentious, looking at the naked body through the lens of health and hygiene seems particularly pertinent. It proposes a way of looking at ourselves and others in sensible ways.
When a mass of bodies appear inside the wall, the spectacle of bodies slowly stacking, sliding and suspending is breathtakingly beautiful. When it becomes clear that the artists have actually been squashed together claustrophobically behind a glass window, the sense of beauty comes tinged with discomfort. The show is a spectacle, an unsettling one — at one point, after someone appears skiing, and someone else uses a fishing line rod like a rifle, the stage is filled with the ensemble’s cacophony of voices. A dancer yells earnestly at the audience “do you think I have cancer?”
Throughout the performance, each person appears and reappears in different states of dress and undress — suits, a knit sweater, mock-ups of costumes, costumes; at one point a performer even tears apart a stuffed animal to dress himself like one. Hilarious, weird, terrifying. When they are in nude, stacking ritualistically atop each other, the sobriety and stark sense of death reminds me that the work was first commissioned by Daniel Liebeskind at the (then empty) Jewish Museum.
Embedded in the work is not just the Berlin wall, but the war that came before. Only in its recent past has Germany as a nation had to contend with its particular, horrific, recent, history. Germany’s demilitarisation came alongside an education that taught about their wrongdoing as a people, and it came alongside the growth of important cultural institutes like Goethe Institut (a programme partner that brought Körper to SIFA). Yet today, Holocaust survivors and Holocaust deniers exist in our world. Sasha Waltz’s art seems to recognise this — the task of pushing back against humanity’s worst instincts is a never-ending one.
Even as Körper’s stage imagery suggests that each body shares in its corporeality, its mortality — even as dancers entwine seamlessly — there are no slick answers for how we might return to the humane, to building connected, undivided communities. There are no broad proclamations, only a quiet end. Two people studying each other from behind a glass window. A crowd beside them.