Sasha Waltz & Guests comes from Berlin to BAM.
The title of Sasha Waltz’s Kreatur is German for “creature,” since Berlin is where her company is based. At some point during the performance of the piece by Sasha Waltz & Guests at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, I began to wonder whether the singular noun might allude to one feverish entity, with the fourteen dancers (all credited with choreography) representing its internal processes and obeying its urges, since they sometimes seemed powerless, moving to the whim of just such an invisible prestidigitator. However, I’d best forget that, since at other times, they became powerful, experimental, tender, or dangerous—their own agents. Or creatures.
We can barely see the stage as a curious dawn slowly begins. What are these several shapes? They turn out to be dancers, each one’s head, arms, body, and thighs invisible at first beneath a fuzzy mound of tiny metallic filaments that bring to mind dandelions gone to seed. These are the first of fashion designer Iris van Herpen’s remarkable technological costumes. When lighting designer Urs Schönebaum brightens the landscape slowly and subtly, you can see the female bodies within these sheaths, taking slightly awkward steps and slowly tilting to one side. During the next few minutes, those encased drop to the floor and crawl backward out of their upside-down nests.
Over the course of the dance, both women and men sometimes wear only trunks, but at other times are garbed in various of van Herpen’s monochromatic sculptured outfits that look as if they’d been spun out of wire or printed by machines unfamiliar to me. The territory that the dancers gradually enter seems a cold one. Schönebaum may tint the backdrop blue or gray, cloud it, brighten it. A horizontal line of light crosses it at floor level and often higher. On one side of the stage sits a tall white staircase.
Soundwalk Collective’s score creates a subtle, ongoing murmur that’s full of slow climaxes, sudden tangling outbursts, and repetitive rhythms. Factories were a source. When it cuts out, it does so suddenly, as if a curfew has been imposed, but toward the end of Kreatur, I hear what sounds like chirping and buzzing. The inhabitants enter and leave the space, but when present, they seem imprisoned, herded by invisible forces. They’re watchful most of the time, but often freeze, unseeing, anchored to a spot. They spread their fingers as if preparing to grasp whatever materializes; they jerk, twitch, twist, and contract their bodies.
In an interview with a French publication, Waltz said that their impulses were always interrupted, that nothing could be finished, that one was breaking apart even as one moved forward. And she added, more poignantly for today’s climate, what can be translated as “one is always bereft (or dispossessed) of one’s liberty.” So when tall, long-limbed Corey Scott-Gilbert embarks on a solo expedition, you imagine him hit by invisible, hostile hands or jolted by electrical currents.
You may feel for these people, but you do not want to be one of them.
They tamper with their appearances. Now and then, certain ones of them unroll and hold up in front of themselves what you imagine to be transparent vertical window shades. But the moving person (or persons) seen through one of these distorts and multiplies with a watery fluidity. Scott-Gilbert, for instance, gains a twin head and body, while his two flesh-and-blood legs appear below the frame. Perhaps Waltz means to suggest a person out of touch with his/her own reality or finding a temporary respite from a difficult life?
Sometimes they move in unison, but more often, they seem to be improvising within strict limitations. Imagine Dante’s Inferno, with a snake pit of writhing bodies. Yet they line up in an orderly fashion to climb the staircase and squeeze onto the platform at its top, even though it’s apparent that there isn’t room for everyone. And that staircase itself can later become unstable, turned by several men like a cartwheel, so that a woman (Zaratiana Randrianantenaina as I recall) seems now to be climbing its steps and now to be descending them.
Sometimes we hear recorded words, such as “my heart is empty. . .filled with love for you.” During the latter part of Kreatur, the dancers yell intermittently, and, during one passage, slap each other’s bodies in divergent ways, arriving at no collaborative rhythm. They labor to combat their own instability (Hwanhee Hwang performs a remarkable solitary outburst of movement). They are sometimes tender together and at other times connect awkwardly. A board—a 2 x4, I think—is brought into the space and anyone holding it can experimentally probe it between bodies or slide it between two feet.
People seem able to be vicious without realizing it. Two men throw Peggy Grelat-Dupont around. Scott-Gilbert holds up Annapaola Leso’s long blonde hair and revolves her by means of it, as if beating eggs. In one touching development—perhaps a game—a person goes up to someone else and copies his/her pose; that act frees the first one to relinquish it and move on. Many pair briefly in this way, taking on another’s responsibility, assuming another’s burden.
A real “kreatur” appears. Why? From where? I don’t know. Its face is invisible, its gender unknown, but it’s obviously human—wearing black, its head covered with long spines. You expect these to make metallic noises when the creature shakes itself; instead, the sound is that of dry rushes in a wind. The others are fascinated, although anyone the interloper approaches shrinks away. You might wonder whether this is a visitation or a game in a place where games are rare. At any rate, the headpiece is lifted off and carried away, revealing Clémentine Deluy. Nothing is made of this. And suddenly I remember the way Grelat-Dupont rises from what looks like an injury or worse and matter-of-factly exits the stage, and the way Scott-Gilbert recovers from his fantastically contorting fit and strides, erect and confident, into the wings.
In BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, the audience was remarkably silent and unfidgetty throughout the performance by these strong, dauntless, and wonderfully expressive dancers, at least until close to the end of Kreatur’s 90 intermissionless minutes. Yes, there were moments when Waltz’s piece seemed to lag or be shaped too predictably, but that didn’t keep it from being a startling, thought-provoking investigation into today’s political and social extremes and the ever-widening chasm between the powerful and the powerless, the imprisoned and the free.