German dance director Helena Waldmann is well known for using themes such as censorship, submission, and precarious working conditions as her material. In this recent one-hour piece Gute Pässe, Schlechte Pässe (Good Passports, Bad Passports), she draws on an issue that concerns us all, alluding to a survey that cites the German passport as the most powerful, the Swiss, figuring eighth in the ranking, and the Afghani, last. In her one-hour piece, four modern dancers and three acrobats join in disparate artistic genres to reflect the discord of ethnic and national “otherness” and suggest the redemptive power of love. The Baden performance was particularly well attended, since the theatre had extended a cordial invitation to asylum seekers in the Baden area to attend.

© Wonge Bergmann
© Wonge Bergmann

The evening begins with a sober exercise, the cast collecting on the bare stage to answer questions such as  “Do you love your country?” “Do you hold more than one passport?” Each member walks to one side of the stage or the other to show a yes or a no, alerting us to the questions that could be stumbling blocks when traveling across borders. Moments later, a vertical pole is supported centre stage by ropes the company holds, and the tremendously agile acrobat Carlos Zaspel climbs up and extends his whole body out it horizontally at some 12 feet above the ground, making a patriotic human banner. After him, Antonia Modersohn mounts, then drops from similar heights to six inches above the floor in a single swoop, while a third gifted dynamo, Tjorm Palmer, gives us the very best of break dance.

But then one of the four dancers demonstrably marks a line straight down the middle of the stage, separating her space from that of the others. Suspicion and refusal to allow stepping over reign, although a lot of “showiness” on the acrobats’ part ensues: vaulting over five, six, then 7 kneeling bodies for example, among numbers. There is even a parody of the dance discipline itself: a limp, saccharin performance of the “Prince” that amuses everyone in the house but the principal dancer himself.

Yet for me, there was an anomaly throughout the ensuing scenes. “No to eccentricity,” was shouted out on stage. “No to gimmicks”, “No to predictability”. Yet these were precisely the nouns I’d have used to describe the sequences. Granted, Richard Wagner’s triumphal “Tannhäuser” overture and the music of “We Are the World”– periodically marked by fascinating electronic distortion (Tobias Staab) – made a compelling score, but the scurrying back and forth over the “line”, the emphatic outbursts, the frenzy became somewhat tiresome. As an intelligent audience, we understood the first or second time around. Further, while Zaspel’s holding the 12-foot ladder upright in his mouth for several seconds was startling, its relevance was debatable; the premise of “ if it’s do-able, might as well do it” doing little to support the pathos of the narrative. And two male acrobats engaging in more than a dozen unassisted, no-handed back-flips put the audience on edge; after so many repeats of the exercise, both men were visibly tired, and could have broken their necks if something went wrong. Good for applause, but do I need that at the theatre?

© Andreas Jetter
© Andreas Jetter
In short, the sequence of flight imitations, the many variations on breaching the line, the degree of unstudied-casual, made for little original choreography. A striking exception was the interface between the two principals. The dancer (Chris Jäger) having painted his face electric blue, first befell, then befriended his opposite (Jäger) and “marked” him as compatriot. Wiping his face over the chest of the defeated man made a powerful moment that almost emerged as sexual, a “branding” of the enemy with one’s own body that showed him finally as “belonging”.

Finally, too, the scene where the wall began to break down was riveting. Half the “wallers” turned away from the other half, and progressively gaining speed, rotated their line as the diameter of a circle, much like the skaters in the major ice shows do. The human machine went too fast to be stopped, and ultimately, disintegrated, but the simple geometric form in rotation and athletic attempts to break its momentum, were breath-taking, and made one of the most interesting configurations of the evening. 

At the very end, the familiar question-answer scheme was repeated, with more sensitive questions − such as “Do you pay your taxes?” “Do you have a criminal record?” − posed. The cast answered again with their cross-stage wanderings, but finally turned frontally to us in the audience, suggesting that we confront the greater issue head on.

Overall, though, while the narrative here rode nicely on the merits of its controversial subject matter, and a brave attempt to unify two artistic genres, the work made little contribution to widening the horizons of choreography. And while the work leaves the audience alerted to the necessity of kindness, it serves only as a faint reflection of the horrors that victims of national displacement are really forced to undergo.

**111