The discomfort of being in our own skin translates to the discomfort of being alive.
Often considered one of her signature works, Sasha Waltz’s Körper has remained incredibly iconic and relevant even 19 years on. While bodies are always a key part of any dance performance, rarely has a production chosen to so boldly examine the body itself in full visceral detail, tearing it down to figure out what makes it tick and analyse our own personal insecurities with it.
Körper begins from the moment one steps into the theatre, with two dancers in front of a giant black obelisk, interacting with various disembodied body parts writhing as they peek out of gaps in the structure, from a bouquet of hands to a length of hairy ponytail. All around us, we are uneasy as we hear fragments of sound by Hans Peter Kuhn, each one seemingly cut off before completion and creating a soundscape of broken parts and evoking hellish thoughts. We think about the human body, broken down and deconstructed to its individual component parts, and begin thinking about what it is that makes us human.
Throughout the performance, we are treated to scene after scene that continues to explore this theme of bodies and the way we view them. We open with a male dancer dressed in full black, rapidly rotating his arms and torso like clockwork, so fast and precise it becomes a blur under Valentin Galle and Martin Hauk’s dramatic lighting. The obelisk opens up to reveal a frame in the middle, from which dancers emerge in slow motion, crawling, ‘floating’, and silently interacting with each other in a nightmarish tapestry, or ‘lava lamp’ of skin and body.
Later, dancers are picked up and lifted by the edges of their skin, unimaginably excruciating for the lay audience member, as they are pressed up against the wall while their lengths are marked in chalk. Two women indicate various internal organs on each other’s bodies, slapping a price tag onto each part, while dancers in corporate suits observe. From time to time, a dancer stands alone, reciting an intimate personal monologue of immense discomfort; each time a body part is mentioned, they point instead to a non-corresponding part on their body instead.
Richly imaginative, scenes often breach the boundaries of the absurd and surreal, with one scene in particular featuring two dancers atop each other, one acting as the torso and the other, hidden under a black cloth, the lower half, reversed, like a bizarro centaur. Body horror aside, just by being able to coordinate their movements and actions while maintaining a sense of grace and artistry leaves us floored by their choreography. In another scene, plates stacked up behind a dancer come to represent a backbone – every time he jerks his neck, the plates move with him, complete with a satisfying crack of porcelain on porcelain.
But no matter which scene we are watching, Körper leaves audience members feeling a sense of alienation from one’s own body, the distinct sense that we no longer have control over how we treat it, or a form of body dysmorphia as our private hangups with our bodies are presented onstage. All of this culminates in a moment of utter chaos as the stage comes awash in activity, each dancer obsessively engaged in a specific task in a burst of energy, darting out from the wings, dancing mad and violent, seemingly disorganised yet coming together with flashing lights and noise in a burst of heartstopping theatrical brilliance. One thinks of how we are constantly plagued by fears and ill-meaning advice to tell us how our bodies should be, forced to conform and behave in a way that makes us constantly afraid and uncomfortable in our own skins, before a climactic set change completely shifts the focus of Körper.
At this stage, Körper’s concerns shift from the individual to that of society, the fears of physical structures themselves collapsing, or politics crushing us beneath coming to light. With the set now a horizontal ramp, dancers manage to fully utilise the space as they stretch themselves to their physical limits, lining their entire bodies across the depth of the stage, falling to the ground in sync, or using their bodies as individual bricks to build a wall of flesh and bone as they stack themselves atop each other. As they move as one, the dancers alternately shout ‘yes!’ and ‘no!’ in unison, undecided on which direction to go in, and one thinks of our place in the world, and, extending the metaphor established in the first half, no longer are we simply uncomfortable in our bodies, but in existing within this chaotic world. We are told constantly how to live our lives, how to move, how to behave, and if anything, it is exhausting.
Yet Körper does seem to suggest some form of hope still. In the dark, three dancers are close to the back of the stage and draw lines in chalk corresponding to their heights and wingspans. We think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and of how the human body is in itself, perfect in its own way. A single female dancer wields two wooden poles, her lengthy hair attached to them and stretched out like threads of fine silk as she is bathed in golden light, freely dancing and basking in her own presence, alone. To begin healing then, we must first look within ourselves, accepting and celebrating our bodies for all their quirks and oddities, shutting out the noise from the outside world before we learn to feel at home in this world once again.
As much as Körper pushes its dancers, it also pushes its audience members to their limits, equal parts filled with shock, terror and wonder. Körper is required watching for anyone who wishes to see a theatrical piece that grips in every varied scene and leaves you shaking with existential dread, a presentation of our bodily anxieties and fears darkly reflected back at us onstage to twist, squeeze and mould our minds to learn to believe that we alone choose how to define our bodies, and by extension, how to live out our lives.
Photo Credit: Bernd Uhlig
Performance attended 1/6/19
Körper played at the Esplanade Theatre from 31st May to 1st June 2019.
The 2019 Singapore International Festival of the Arts played from 16th May to 2nd June 2019. For more information and the full lineup of shows, visit their website