Sasha Waltz & Guests: A Love Letter

Leigh Donlan reports from Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley:



Sasha Waltz brought Impromptus featuring seven dancers and live music by pianist Cristina Marton and mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff, to Zellerbach Hall on Friday and Saturday, October 24 and 25, 2014. (Photo: Sebastian Bolesch)

An open love letter to Sasha Waltz and her “Guests” here would be inappropriate on many levels, so I will offer up the inadequacy of a review. Cal Performances brought this Berlin based company to Zellerbach Hall this weekend to present Impromptus, a dance based on the structure of five of Franz Schubert’s most profoundly sensitive pieces from his 1827 cycle (one year before his death at age thirty-one), and four of his haunting lieder. Pianist Cristina Marton played Schubert so beautifully that his spirit permeated the hall, and mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff, along with the seven dance artists, transported us to other worlds during the brief seventy minute performance. Themes of parallel worlds that never intersect and the disparity of human emotional terrains were elegantly depicted by Thomas Schenk’s stage design of a suspended gold parallelogram and two steeply raked, converging stages.

Sasha Waltz’ Impromptus (Photo: Sebastian Bolesch)

The first of nine sections starts with Marton playing Impromptu in F minor as two male dancers, Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola and Xuan Shi, take the stage, beginning together but then separating. Shi is yearning for something intangible, his upward reaching movements held in lengthy intervals, while Diaz de Garaio Esnaola wants to escape the confines of his flesh, swiping at an unseen boxed space around him. Michal Mualem and Luc Dunberry perform a tender though entangled pas de deux, and we quickly forget that they are dancing at a steep angle the entire time, his lifts of her unaffected. Three more females appear- Niannian Zhou, Yael Schnell and Zaratiana Randrianantenaina – gravitating towards the couple. The dancers move like the textured notes of Schubert’s composition throughout this production, separate though part of a whole, and Waltz is brilliant in her choreography, as finely tuned to sentiment and nuance as Schubert was himself. A beautiful dreamscape moment has Schnell holding Randrianantenaina and de Garaio Esnaola holding Shi as they move in silence with slow Tai Chi-like motions. Randrianantenaina and Shi climb about their partners bodies, holding themselves in full body plank poses across their partner’s chests and backs. Their feet never touch the ground, a gift of eternal flight from their companions.

Sandhoff sings a total of four lieder, in German, and it’d be difficult to pick a favorite, especially after reading the translations in the program notes. Schubert’s friends were all prominent thinkers of the time and included Friedrich von Schiller, Johann Gabriel Seidl, Heinrich Heine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Whenever Sandhoff sings, a calm reverence envelops the stage as if her voice is a direct link to God. As the first lied ends, silence is broken by water-filled galoshes worn by Randrianantenaina and Diaz de Garaio Esnaola. At first humorous, the watery sounds become a sensual, critical part of the score (water seems to represent primal awareness.) Later, the stage reveals a sunken bath where two women playfully wash themselves and a third wishes to join but is nervous. Eventually she is gratefully pulled into the waters and, once alone, takes a slow headfirst dive into the depths, never to resurface for air again.


Sasha Waltz’ Impromptus (Photo: Sebastian Bolesch)

Waltz’s choreography is a language like no other in existence today, truly unique, the result of close collaboration with her dancers. The final pas de deux between Randrianantenaina and Shi brilliantly sums up, in six minutes, the history of romantic relationships in such a profound way – together with Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor- that I can’t get the dance out of my mind. The couple weaves in and out of phases of passion, desperation, detachment, power struggles and numbness. They are alternately malleable, like dolls. They lift each other up, knock each other down, and not much of a conclusion is reached. The company received a standing ovation and three curtain calls.

Waltz is clearly a superb crafter, but it is her straight shooting that struck this heart. She is intellectual yet vulnerable, remaining accessible. Her dancers are unselfconscious. Perhaps I’m overly sentimental in longing for the days of yore, when people wore their hearts on their sleeves and music was transcendent, but this romantic has lit a candle for Sasha Waltz & Guests and eagerly awaits their return.

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3 thoughts on “Sasha Waltz & Guests: A Love Letter

  1. “An open love letter” to Ballet to the People (and a complaint): you guys are a breath of fresh air. I’ve got friends hooked on your writing even the ones who don’t know much about dance, because you are fun to read and sometimes go off on these wild tangents like a roller coaster ride. (Like Date an illiterate girl??? That was a trip.) So great that you will print different opinions of the same program. Wish you’d be more proactive about recommending shows in advance of their openings so we can plan ahead. And what about recommending shows that would make a good date night if you were dating, say an artsy girl, or a sports crazy girl, or a girl who hates classical music??? Anyway here’s the complaint: your site is almost impossible to read on a smartphone. And hard to read on an iPad. Who uses a laptop anymore? Answer: no one under 40. This is a problem.

    • Dearest Will,
      Thank you for your kind words and know that, as I write this, we are conspiring to make your every wish come true, especially the one about more previews. We also have our master programmer working on the site continuously to make it more accessible.
      Now on to the most harkening part of your query: date nights. You’re in luck! San Francisco (and the entire Bay Area) is teeming with potentially magical moments. For the “artsy” girl, this Halloween weekend, may I suggest that you both dress to impress and experience the bearded ladies at the Great Star Theater’s “Spookeasy” in Chinatown?
      Given that the Giants are now World Series champions (again!), your “sporty” girl will also be easy to entertain around town this weekend. Just listen for the loudest bar and make a beeline towards it. Maybe after a few drinks, sporty girl will morph into artsy girl. And you can take her to “Spookeasy.” You never know.
      And for the damsel who is clearly in distress because she has not given classical music a fair chance, be patient and kind. Oftentimes, people exhibiting such behaviors are living with deeply repressed fears, and need to be guided gently into the vastness that is classical music. Fortunately, Austria’s Hagen Quartet is making a rare appearance this Saturday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. They will be playing Mozart, Shostakovich and Brahms. This would be an excellently soothing introduction. If she’s at risk of her eyes rolling to the back of her head or speaking in tongues, may I suggest you sit near an exit.
      And we promise to offer more and more previews…
      As you wish,
      Leigh Donlan

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