Migratory patterns: Sasha Waltz's recent works
Sasha Waltz and Guests, Kreatur
November 2 – 5, 2018
It is a brisk late-August day in Berlin and I am at the Radialsystem V, the former water purification plant flanking the banks of the river Spree, which the choreographer Sasha Waltz and her longtime collaborator and partner, the dramaturg Jochen Sandig, converted into a multipurpose art venue a decade or so ago. Though I have visited the space on numerous occasions in the past, the spacious lobby, as well as the expansive performance hall of Radialsystem, seems almost unrecognizable, having been stripped of the usual vestiges of a performance venue. I am here to see EXODOS, a new immersive dance-theater work by Waltz, and to speak with her about her company’s upcoming US premiere of Kreatur, which lands at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in early November as part of the Next Wave Festival. Waltz's company is currently touring stateside; preceding the BAM engagement, they performed their iconic production, Körper, in late October at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California
In staging EXODOS, Waltz took advantage of Radialsystem in all its raw beauty, harnessing nearly every corner of the space to create a site-specific experience for the viewers. The audience roamed around freely, sometimes in close proximity to the performers. Throughout the evening, action unfolded simultaneously in different areas of the venue. “I'm interested in opening up the borders between the performance and the public,” says Waltz in speaking about her new production. “We cross different fields in this work: sometimes the performers are exhibited as if in a museum; then, later on, there is quite a big exchange, creating an intimacy with the public. They see each other up close, there’s even some interaction, and it builds until the dancers and the public become one and participate physically.” Indeed, during the three-hour spectacle of EXODOS, the audience passes through a wide array of modalities: from observing the performers moving at a glacial pace inside claustrophobic glass display boxes, to being gently invited to join a meandering waltz with one of them.
The work kept taking unexpected turns, with the performers’ bodies at times coalescing into a kind of a collective body. Halfway in, all the cast members lay across the floor, and turned into an undulating mass that split the audience in half, pushing spectators against either side of the performance hall. Soon after, the space flooded with thumping music, and the performers encouraged the visitors to dance, escalating to a massive rave of sorts. Some of the performers danced wildly inside a large transparent box that had been rolled into the space; moments later, the box became a glass cage in which a performer was forcibly detained. Images came in waves, vacillating between elation and violence, imbued at times with a reassuring sense of community and, elsewhere, with a dread of isolation.
My conversation with Waltz reveals that all of these dynamics are very much connected with the core themes of involuntary migrations and collective mindsets, which she set out to explore in this new work. In Greek, the word exodos means “a way out;” an exit. It can be used in a metro station, for example, but also in the leisurely sense of “going out.” In her performance, Waltz indeed explores the multiplicity of meanings: transcendence, flight, escape from oneself, even death. The EXODOS ensemble is large and extremely diverse, with twenty-six performers coming from many corners of the world. Waltz’s creative process for this work involved many conversations around migrations and the ongoing refugee crisis. “In our everyday language, we use terms such as the ‘refugee wave,’ but then there are also waves in fashion, and in Greek, which is the parallel line I am exploring, you also have night clubs that are referred to as ‘EXODOS’,” explains Waltz. “In the context of night life, you go out of your reality to enter a different one. It’s also a flight in the sense that we go out of our bodies, and become a part of a collective body. On the other side, you have the existential flight of people who are forced to leave their homes that also become a kind of a collective body; they are individuals, but we conflate them into a single entity by referring to them as ‘refugees’ or the ‘wave.’ As we worked, these notions became deeply intertwined.” For Waltz and her dancers based in Berlin, a city that harbors many refugees, these issues hit close to home. “On one occasion, on our way to perform at BAM, one of our Chinese dancers was not allowed to travel,” the choreographer continues. “We also have an Albanian dancer in the ensemble who escaped over the mountains. So, in working as an ensemble, all of these issues, experiences and questions build up. Who are we? What are we afraid of? What are the darkest corners of our hearts? From there, we went into the collective mindset, and we also had long conversations about utopia, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum.”
For Waltz, delving into this subject matter represents a continued exploration that began while making Kreatur—the work her company is presenting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month—albeit in a much more open-ended, abstract manner. Unlike the roving, immersive EXODOS, Kreatur is more of a chamber piece, created for a proscenium stage. One of the elements that sets this work apart from others in her recent choreographic oeuvre is the extraordinary first-time collaboration with the avant-garde fashion designer Iris van Herpen, the international music trio, the Soundwalk Collective, and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum. Waltz had initially approached van Herpen about a project that did not end up materializing, but felt that the visionary fashion designer’s sculptural aesthetic was a fitting match for Kreatur. Sandig had brought the work of Soundwalk Collective to Waltz’s attention and both had subsequently experienced the trio’s music first-hand at the Park Avenue Armory in New York; Schönebaum’s designs are widely seen in his collaborations with acclaimed directors such as Robert Wilson and William Kentridge. “I love collaboration, and also love to collaborate multiple times to develop those relationships and to dig deeper,” says Waltz. “But with this work, I felt like I needed to open it up—I had been working on several opera productions, so I wanted to challenge my language and explore. And it turned out to be a great group of people.”
As is the case with many new relationships, new artistic collaborations have their learning curves. Iris van Herpen is known for experimenting not only with the form and construction of clothes, but also for working with unconventional, man-made materials. At some point in the process, an entire set of costume pieces was built out of stainless steel webbing that is normally used in car manufacturing process. On first use, those costumes held up, but then, as Waltz points out: “wearing a piece on a fashion runway for five minutes is different than sweating in it on stage for over an hour.” As the metallic thread began to oxidize in contact with the skin, the dancers started developing rashes, and the entire batch of costumes had to be re-conceived. “You really have to find the ways of working together,” Waltz continues. “The collaboration between our ateliers—mine and van Herpen’s—the communication was great and everyone learned from each other: theater people learned from haute couture, and haute couture learned from theater. It was very constructive.”
Ultimately, Kreatur offered a welcomed challenge for Waltz in that, after working on several opera projects, with firmly set musical scores and action dictated by libretti, she faced an open field of creative possibilities and took the opportunity to explore the zeitgeist. “I was really casting a wide net with my research,” concludes Waltz. “Referring to the creature in the work’s title—we were, again, looking at the collective mindset, what are we as humans, how dark we get, how tribal. We start from where we were at the point of origin, and arrive to something almost artificial. We observe gender issues, and power structures within the group, and amongst individuals. It was really about creating a new vocabulary, and investigating the questions we discussed that I actually continued in EXODOS, but more broadly and more abstractly. I really listened to how we feel, where our society is now, what is the language that we need to dig up.”