Expect to be challenged, is good advice to anyone about to encounter a work by Sasha Waltz, the international choreographer, born in Germany, who creates a bridge between architecture and choreography in her unique blend of conceptual performance art. The formal architecture of Körper consists of a tall and wide grey wall, positioned diagonally so as to obscure the upstage left area, consisting of a large window and a couple of “glory holes” through which hands and hair emerge and are dangled, in a prolonged opening, as the audience take their seats. In a surprising coup de théâtre mid-way through the 90-minute work, the wall comes crashing down with geometrically precise calculations, just missing a performer lying vulnerably on the stage. It is a moment reminiscent of the collapse of breeze blocks at the beginning of Pina Bausch’s Palermo Palermo, made in 1989.       

Körper is a work by Waltz that dates back to 2000. The title is the German word for body and the work opened a trilogy that focused on the human form and aspects of mortality, including noBody (2002). In many senses, the architecture of Körper, despite the wall, is about the structure of bodies, a point that emerges strongly in several of her tableaux vivants, not least when the near-naked dancers pile themselves atop each other, as if constructing walls made of human stones. Another remarkable image comes early on, when the dancers squeeze themselves into the narrow aperture between the window and the wall, filling the crevice with slow-moving bodies, naked but for flesh-coloured briefs. Imperceptibly, they move into the space, clambering over each other, breasts and faces squashed against the Perspex. When the slot is crammed with writhing, slithering, grey bodies, filling the 4-metre high space, it is a scene reminiscent of Rodin’s imagery in The Gates of Hell.

Eighteen years’ on from the work’s première in Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Plaz, it is impressive that seven of the original 13 dancers are still performing this most challenging of works. They include three performers whose personal stories have always punctuated the movement and visual imagery with their spoken text: Claudia’s story (by Claudia de Serpa Soares) describes her body, concluding with the wish to stop smoking because “...I’m sure that my lungs must be quite dark”. I wonder if she is still smoking, 18 years’ later. The smoking image returns when another veteran from 2000, Davide Campiani alternately puffs on a cigarette and sucks a rubber tube attached to a box.  

Then there is Luc’s story, in which Luc Dunberry concludes with similar morbidity by asking his doctor if he thinks he has cancer; and Sigal’s story (by Sigal Zouk), about how each morning starts for her. It is easy to make trite comparisons between Waltz’s creativity and the tanztheater of Bausch but the one clear similarity between their companies is the loyalty and longevity of their dancers (one of whom, Clémentine Deluy, has, uniquely, worked with both ensembles). It is remarkable that the text from the première is still being delivered, almost two decades later, by the same performers. Only Grayson Millwood is no longer present to tell his story (an unfortunate encounter at a picnic), now delivered by Clyde Emmanuel Archer.

The frequency of episodes and slick personnel-changes, between scenes, helps to overcome the disjointedness of these random sections. There is much arresting imagery: a woman holds her impossibly-long braided hair extensions at the end of long white poles; two dancers stand facing the audience, naked from the waist, wearing long black skirts, from which legs eventually extend outwards but in grotesque, distorted positions since there is a “pantomime horse” effect created by another dancer, unseen and upside down within the skirt! This misplacing of the bodily norm is a leitmotif throughout the performance. When dancers speak of a body part they invariably point to somewhere else on their own body. Takako Suzuki – another veteran from the première who has been with the company since the beginning, in 1992, and Niannian Zhou discuss the value of their organs, slapping price tags on their naked bodies (130,000 euros for a liver, for example). It is generally thought-provoking, either through imagery, spoken text, or both.

Some aspects are overlong and the background score by Hans Peter Kuhn, comprising mechanical sounds interspersed with long periods of silence, appears to be the random noise of failing building services at Sadler’s Wells! One quickly becomes accustomed to the ever-present display of breasts and chests, although it seems strange that the random flashes of full-frontal nakedness are women-only. 

Körper is definitely not for anyone seeking an evening of entertaining dance theatre – dance is seldom used but when it comes, it is to great effect – but it is certainly a challenging treatise on our perceptions of body (and also gender) norms with closely-aligned thoughts about mortality.  The presence of several dancers who have been performing this work for the whole for eighteen years adds an extra layer of poignancy to this thoughtful work.