The last section of Sasha Waltz and Guests’ triptych, Gezeiten, is an absurdist tour de force. For a half-hour, 16 dancers and the world they inhabit slowly, then quickly, fall apart. A man hammers his shoes onto a wall. A woman in a ball gown shimmies across the stage, drawing a smiley face in lipstick on a brown bag she holds in front of her own face. A man covers himself in baby powder, for no reason at all. A woman made two-dimensional by the stiff boards she wears inside her athletic suit kicks a wooden block. A man wearing pantyhose on his head smears lipstick on a wall.
These and other random bits of madness come together when the set is destroyed from underneath. The cacophony is followed by virtual silence as three giant slumping cocoons enter the wreckage.
For what it’s worth, Gezeiten, which means “tides” in German, is all about preparing the audience for this surreal vision. It isn’t easy. The first section is a pure dance made of human architecture and predicated on trust. The idea is vaguely utopian: Relationships are created when dancers form physical bonds in yoga-like postures.
It’s a simple idea, and it goes on too long and with little regard to the accompanying music, Bach suites for violoncello. Occasionally the dancers, expressionless, pile atop one another and spin, whirling-dervish style. There’s the occasional visual gag, such as dancers forming an elaborate lineup, thrown in to suggest Waltz might be playing coy; it’s hard to know. This section is redolent of the laziness of the Berlin modern dance scene, where no one breaks a sweat if she can avoid it.
At 47, Waltz is one of Europe’s leading theater artists. She created Gezeiten in 2005 to explore human responses to trauma, a topic she approaches with the experience of having been herself trapped in a Corsican village surrounded by fire. Performances at the BAM Next Wave Festival early last month marked its U.S. premiere.
The trauma behind Gezeiten might be supplied by the catastrophe of the second section; then again, maybe a catastrophe closing the first section is why the dancers appear so traumatized during its second section. When the lights come up we see the doors in the set that were open in the first section are now closed. The Bach and the cellist are gone. The dancers stand in a clump downstage, facing the same direction with their mouths open. They wear more specific variations of their previous costumes, indicating that the second section leans towards realism. The dancers speak and, though they each speak a different language, understand one another perfectly.
We’re left to ponder whether the group of mixed linguists represents modern Europe, or just Europe Chic.
This confusion of serious style and not-so-serious content, realism and bizarreness, plagues the second section. The dancers, once they close their mouths, develop an unexplained fear of the floor: One goes catatonic, and against the advice of the group leader, several women bathe the victim and then remove him from the room. The others relax and make a home in this same room, setting out food and installing plumbing.
Twenty minutes in, smoke fills the room. The dancers try the doors again, and this time none will open. The back wall of the set lights up in flames, and the dancers panic, but a fire extinguisher solves that problem and the dancers open the doors and flee the stage, dramatics miraculously ended.
At 110 minutes without intermission, Gezeiten is an interesting night at the theater only if you have an interest in institutional history. Sasha Waltz made this piece at the end of her residency at the Berlin Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz, a once-minor Berlin theater that has enjoyed a new vogue since the beginning of the decade. (She now works from Berlin’s Radialsystem V, an interdisciplinary artists’ think tank she cofounded in 2006.) It was her last project created with the full resources of a German theater—resources American choreographers can only dream about.
Amateurish yet overproduced, Gezeiten owes its few successes to Jonathan Bepler’s score. For without Bepler’s sounds driving its shifting moods, Gezeiten would be little more than an exercise in costume and set design.
Natalie Axton writes about dance in New York and blogs at livingwithcriticism.com.