In the year of its 25th anniversary, Sasha Waltz & Guests is presenting an old-time favourite at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Premiered in 2000 and performed over 200 times since, Körper is a mesmerising catalogue of the uses and abuses of the body in our society. On music by Hans Peter Kuhn, the bodies are measured, weighed, stacked, pressed, and almost vacuumed, under a laboratory glass for us to examine. Down to earth images are juxtaposed to poetic ones, in a narration that runs in and out of the skin’s pores and orifices inducing empathy for others’ bodies.

Körper © Berndt Uhlig
Körper
© Berndt Uhlig

As we enter the auditorium, two dancers in black suits are moving hectically around a gigantic black picture frame in the middle of the stage. A silhouette is sketched with chalk on the black surface, while fingers and hands are poking out from holes in the structure, creating flowers and other kaleidoscopic figures. After a short blackout, the flow of images starts with trios clad in black (mostly suits but one has a monk-like robe) performing acrobatic figures, loudly throwing their bodies on the floor and composing precarious balances. The dancers then, in skin coloured underpants, squeeze under the glass of the structure. Framed as if in a painting, they crawl and float in mid-air in a continuously changing tableau vivant that reminds me of the vulnerable humanity of baroque saints’ and martyrs’. A woman calling out the prices of the various organs and marking them in red on her body brings us back to reality, while next to her, a group suspends a man and a woman by their skin and whilst a Saint Thomas peeks inside someone’s folded wound, water (blood) flows out of these bodies on stage. A woman, naked under her transparent red dress, tells us of her morning routine mismatching the body parts she names and those she indicates. Bodies are measured horizontally against the wall and a lady with a long stick makes chalk signs that then become coffins. Two centaurs leave saucers all over the stage that are then stacked as vertebrae that click when moved. Suddenly, the black structure falls down, just a few centimetres from a dancer. Further images are created on what is now a slope: the bodies are building blocks, are stalked, form stripes or perform archaic rituals. The piece ends with a man and a woman facing their reflections, superimposed onto the other.

Körper presents a broad collection of phenomena surrounding the body: from horrific events – I have seen the stacks of bodies of the Second World War or the transplant organs market – to frivolous images – the man skiing down the black monolith or the woman mislabelling her body parts – the work invites to a contemplation of what is most sacred to one’s self and an admonition of how the (other) bodies are mistreated. We are presented with all sorts of bodies, tall and short, more muscular or more round, young and old, some are loved, others despised, some have value, others none. In the totality of voices, no one body is left behind, awakening the sensuous and empathic self of the audience, Kuhn’s soundtrack of animals’ growls, dripping and reflux of stagnating water also contribute to the internal perspective. The body is at once archaic – the centaurs, the naked dervishes and the lady with extremely long hair bound to poles – and contemporary – the bodies on stage are real and the transplant market is still flourishing. It can display orderly or compulsive behaviours. It is intimate and personal but also impersonal and can be used as a building block. The body is surface – the skin is used as suspension surface – but fluids flow inside its depth. Empathy is also built up, as some dancers are seen at the sides of the auditorium, but mostly, by the unexpected fall of the black structure that moved the air across the audience, highlighting the continuum between stage and audience, a continuum between the bodies. Gripping and touching, Körper does not fail to evoke a response in the bodies watching, with the elegant costumes by Bernd Skodzig covering and cheekily revealing hybrid bodies and bodies transforming, as in a magic trick, into something else.

Serious and witty at the same time, Körper is a collection of subjective and objective reflections on the body aimed at evoking empathy and creating a connection with those bodies watching. Despite being a classic (at least for me), it feels fresh, the commentary still relevant. It is at once a journey into the depth of the self and on the surfaces of other bodies, trying to connect to the same intimate place in another body. At a time when everyone is constantly watching their phone, what we need is definitively more empathy and attention... to the body. 

*****