In 2013, the twentieth anniversary year of its founding, Sasha Waltz & Guests were named European “cultural ambassadors” by the European Union. Cited among the company’s accomplishments was the fact that it had performed some 250 guest appearances in over 103 European cities. This past weekend, the company brought its Impromptus to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

Impromptus is a 70-minute piece based on nine short works by Schubert, five solo piano pieces selected from the composer’s final works, published under the title of Impromptus,and four lieder. Pianist Cristina Marton captured the warm and fervent sentiment of these quintessentially Romantic works and accompanied mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff in her elegant rendition of Schubert’s songs of lost love.

© Sebastian Bolesch
© Sebastian Bolesch
Waltz uses the music only as an element of the overall piece, however, cutting through the emotional coherence of the composer’s Romantic vision in multiple ways. She uses silence throughout the performance: long sections of the dancing are performed in silence, or with only a subtle sound-field as accompaniment. The dancers would lean down and scratch the stage floor. At one point they moved to the squeakiness of water-filled galoshes.

In addition to the auditory stillness, the abstract starkness of the stage works against the passions of Schubert’s music. The stage floor is divided into two large stages set at angles to each other: one is tilted like a traditional raked stage, with the upstage higher than the edge fronting the audience, and the other is raked in the opposite direction with the upstage edge tilted down. Between the two platforms hangs a third, large, skewed rectangle. This gold fabric-covered flat acts first as a wall behind which the dancers disappear to emerge in different white and black costumes. Later, the wall lifts some four feet into the air and is set in motion with a gentle push. It becomes a pendulum background to the singer’s first piece: Des Mädchens Klage (“The Maiden’s Lament”). The sets, which are the environment in a much more integral way than many theatrical sets, are minimalist and kinetic, as well as structural. This sense of architecture lies at the heart of Waltz’s choreography. Beyond the softness and sensuality of the human body, especially in relation to others as sexual bodies, there is much in what Waltz offers that is architectural in quality, and lies in how she positions body against body, body against floor, and body at the intersection of wall and floor. It lies in the way she nests her dancers’ bodies into each other. It also lies in the pas de deux in which one body slowly leans off another until one dancer is hanging improbably, his body rigid as a plank, off the hip or arm of another. At times, the configurations seem impossible, gravity-defying and illusory, but carefully constructed to remain upright and stable.

The body, as Waltz has it, is structural, and she reveals this in the scant-to-nothing costuming that reveals her dancers’ bodies; it’s as if she were pulling up her sleeves like a magician that reveals that there are no devices, no hidden coins or scarves – only bare skin covering bone and muscle. The dancers’ movements are not often erotic and gender seems irrelevant: women lift women, men lift men, women lift men, men lift women. What is sexual or erotic is the vulnerability inherent in the human body.

© Sebastian Bolesch
© Sebastian Bolesch
This sense of vulnerability is part of Waltz’ movement vocabulary. Her movements are not from ballet or modern technique, but are more everyday in their origins, captured in time, so that they can retain the stillness of structure.

There are moments of fierceness, and moments of wonder, but these seem attached to some discovery about the physicality of the world. After comically wandering the stage in soggy rubber boots, the dancers begin to smear each other with red pigment from the stage up: are they discovering the earth as red clay? Are they pulling the earth into the clay of their bodies, the red of their blood? And when they follow the pigment by pouring water on their legs and feet, red streams down the slanted stage. Is it the dancers' blood? The earth's blood? Or is it simply red pigment and water...