It seems fitting that a German ensemble would stage a work keenly evoking terror, displacement and survival amid catastrophe. Next week the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival will host “Gezeiten” (the aptly titled “Tides” in German), a dance theater performance choreographed by the likewise appropriately named Sasha Waltz.
Waltz, 47, was born in Karlsruhe, Germany. Along with her husband, Jochen Sandig, she formed Sasha Waltz and Guests in 1993. The two have collaborated on a number of cultural projects in Berlin, including most recently, the establishment of Radialsystem V, a genre-crossing arts space similar to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) that houses the dance company. Before settling there, Waltz studied in Amsterdam and in New York, reveling in the multicultural nature of these large cities. From her current home in the Mitte section of Berlin, Waltz has the ability to reflect on German Jewish history.
Prior to the Holocaust this part of Berlin had a large and active Jewish community, one that is slowly now coming back to life, centered mainly around the synagogue/museum on Oranienburger Strasse. Waltz has seen a Jewish school sprout up and has befriended Jewish artists who have moved to Berlin, which in an interview she described as “embracing and welcoming everybody.”
Given this openness and diversity as well as Germany’s funding of the arts, Waltz and her husband have chosen to live and work there.
Her company now presents more than 100 performances around the world each year. Waltz’s “guests” include her dancers, who come from the world over. Waltz also actively collaborates with international artists such as the American Jonathan Bepler who arranged the music for “Gezeiten.”
Though Bepler arranged a Bach cello suite for some of “Gezeiten,” large amounts of silence convey the austerity of the total destruction that has befallen. To Waltz, the title can be seen as a “poetic description of a force which is beyond our control.” Sixteen performers assemble on the stage; starkly decorated, its walls are peeling and everything is falling apart. The performers are anxious and speak little. When they do, it is like the Tower of Babel, everyone conversing in his own tongue, adding to the confusion and disquiet felt by the audience.
“Gezeiten” is an abstract work without a linear narrative structure.
It begins with the dancers walking into a room — their place of refuge — slowly, clinging to one another, leaving behind what is presumed to be a mysterious disaster zone outside. As they settle in, their world implodes, blackness falls throughout the whole space, smoke billows from the floor and fire burns from the walls.
The audience can smell the smoke and feel the heat of the fire, throwing them into the arena from their seats, causing them to feel closer to the dancers on stage. The dancers react to what has happened to them offstage, what their new environment has in store for them, and to each other. The daughter of an architect, Waltz is particularly interested in rooms and how people relate to their environment.
Waltz had a number of tragedies in mind when conceiving of “Gezeiten” in 2005. As an artist, she consciously confronts her country’s troubled history. The idea of a crumbling place of refuge and strangers being forced to live there, escaping an external threat, will surely make some think of Jews hiding during the Holocaust. In addition, Waltz looked outside of Germany and even Europe for inspiration, thinking about the attacks of 9/11, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina. In addition, her family survived a large fire, traumatizing her children and causing for her what she calls “an existential crisis”.
Waltz evokes these difficult associations through a mixture of dance and theater, a highly visual genre of performance perfected in Germany. She studied German expressionist dance, which seeks to free dance from its literary and musical connections, instead emphasizing movement, expression and theatricality. She has also studied American modern dance.
This is Sasha Waltz and Guests’ third performance in New York at BAM as part of its Next Wave Festival, which aims to present both the work of both emerging and established artists, many of them international. Waltz’s company previously appeared in “Impromptus” in 2005 and “Korper” in 2002. “Korper”, (Bodies) is a meditation on the body.
While in “Gezeiten” the tragedy and the destruction are great, “Korper” intentionally uses Holocaust imagery. Dancers are crammed together, nearly naked, pulled by their skin, and some place others into piles of vulnerable bodies. Parts of it were conceived and performed in the weeks before the exhibitions were installed in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The company also brought the show to Tel Aviv, where they were met with what Waltz describes as “very strong reaction with spectators being moved a lot.”
When Sasha Waltz and Guests had the opportunity to travel to the West Bank this past spring to take part in the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, they performed a different piece called “Zweiland” (Two Lands), a work Waltz created in light of Germany’s reunification. In it, Waltz’s dancers perform before a gray, concrete-like wall, a structure familiar to Germans, Israelis, and Palestinians alike. The company also staged “Zweiland” in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and east Jerusalem.
To Waltz, dance traverses lines; she had wished the Israelis and Arabs could have seen all of these productions.
“We are bridging cultures with our pieces. We are speaking about emotions that all human beings share with each other no matter which nation, religion, age or sex they are belonging to … I wish that [Israelis and Palestinians] could have easily travel[ed] to visit the productions and share the experiences which each other like brothers and sisters.”
Sasha Waltz’s “Gezeiten” will be performed Nov. 3, and Nov. 5-6, at 7:30 p.m., at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn. Tickets available at bam.org or (718) 636-4100.