Tuesday, August 9, 2011

DVD Review: Körper/S/NoBody

Posted By on Tue, Aug 9, 2011 at 10:46 AM

In 1999, the German choreographer Sasha Waltz began a three-part examination of the human body, and unfortunately the diagnosis we got was not so good. Körper (German for “bodies”) took a look at the absurdity, persistence, and bleak realities of human physicality. The piece was produced at her company's then-new home: the vast, centrally-located, Bauhaus-style theater Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin. It was quickly followed by two other pieces—S (2000) and noBody (2002)—forming a trilogy. Now all three works have been produced as a boxed DVD set (Körper and noBody were both previously broadcast on television and available on DVD, but S has not been seen as a recorded work before).

One of the trilogy's most stunning and memorable images (there are many) is of the entire company crammed into a shallow display case at the opening of the first piece Körper. It's somewhat emblematic of the trilogy as a whole: frightening, uncomfortable, pessimistic, with connotations of the human body's history of being measured, weighed, classified. There are flashes of humor and absurdity in Waltz's trilogy, but it's this disturbing and troubling tone which seems most persistent and memorable. Later we see orderlies lifting and hauling their human subjects by grabbing fistfuls of loose skin. Dancers rattle off the current market prices of organs and surgical procedures, taping price tags to parts of their bodies. Dancers are squeezed and water dribbles out of their orifices. This is not the body beautiful: far from it, it's the body with all its liquids, solids, entrails. Bodies are shown in all their weird permutations, abilities, limitations, their vulnerability to violence, their fragility but also their disturbing tenaciousness. We do see the body's capacity for emotion, but mostly in the form of panic, fear, loss, grief, confusion.

Waltz's capacity for invention and innovation are constant, and the large theater space allows for some cool set pieces, props, and costumes: a woman's long braids are strapped to dowels and played like the strings of a violin, a dancer skis down one of the walls, stacks of saucers are held so they resemble vertebrae, rattling and clacking as a dancer bends his neck.

The works are well-filmed in crisp, high-quality video which makes the action seem very present, stripped down, emblematic, almost allegorical. I was surprised to find that the simple stark, modern images looked especially nice on the small screen: laptop, iPad, mobile device. Occasionally, the film-makers dwelt too long on close-ups. Though Waltz's dancers have fascinating faces, her true facility is with stage tableaux, so a larger picture was what was wanted. There are a couple of “arty” shots, with frames intentionally out of focus, cut in quick strobe-like succession, or in black and white 8mm, but these are thankfully very rare. Mostly the film-makers wisely just allow Waltz's serious, bleak vision to unfold. It's a great document of an important work.

Box sets can be pricey, so while you're saving up your pfennigs for Körper, you can still check out some of Sasha Waltz's amazing work for the Neues Museum. The 2009 piece Dialogue 09, in which dancers occupied nearly every room of the enormous, newly restored Berlin museum, can be explored for free via a cool, interactive website.

A preview for Körper/S/NoBody can be seen below:

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