Leigh Donlan reports from Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley:
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.
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.
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.