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Last May Linda Shelton, who directs the Joyce Theater, boarded a plane at LaGuardia. In Montreal, she went to a cheeky nightspot to check out Felix Ruckert's Hautnah (playing now through October 30 at the Joyce Soho). She downed a glass of German wine, ducked through a black curtain, slipped off her shoes, and handed $20 to a stranger. On returning to Manhattan, she expensed the whole escapade, leaving taxpayers and private donors to foot the bill.
Hautnahis a performance conceived by Ruckert, a protégé of Pina Bausch, high priestess of German expressionism. Like Bausch, Ruckert gets his kicks by questioning theatrical assumptions and distilling his dancers' memories into evocative fragments of movement and text. He parts ways with her in his streamlined aesthetic and his penchant for crashing through the fourth wall.
In Hautnah, which he translates as "close like the skin," a set of 10 solos is performed simultaneously, in adjacent compartments, for 10 individual spectators. There's no sex, but the café setting, negotiable fee, and private environments contribute to what he calls an "erotic context."
It could be the hottest ticket since Nicole Kidman bared ass in The Blue Room. The piece is part of "New Europe '99," a festival showcasing emerging artists and weighing the cultural ramifications of the Cold War's end and the move toward European union. (For specific events, visit the festival's Web site at www.neweurope.org.) The close encounters in Ruckert's piece could be a metaphor for Europe, where entire nations have brushed against each other for centuries. "It causes a certain stress for some people to be in a small space with a stranger," he says over the phone from his home in Berlin. "They don't know what the other person will do. But it also sharpens their perception. They start to look more closely, see more things."
Now 40, Ruckert grew up in Bavaria, then studied with Bausch at the Folkwang School in Essen. After dancing in Paris with Peter Goss and Mathilde Monnier, he returned to Germany in 1992 to join Bausch's Wuppertaler Tanz- theater. Two years later he set up his own troupe, Cie Felix Ruckert, in Berlin. (Bausch's company opens at BAM on November 2.) Initially, he made big pieces for 20 or more people. Then he turned his attention to solos.
"Being alone with a dancer was a special situation," he recalls. "It's like he dances for you, and the corrections and choreography become a dialectical process. I thought, why not put the spectator in this position?" Altogether, he has created 55 different solos for Hautnah. The Montreal version, which coincided with the war in Kosovo, featured some of the tougher, colder, and more desperate ones. New York will see more of his softer side.
The proximity between dancer and spectator allows Ruckert to play with tiny gestures that he might otherwise have to discard. "The dancers tune it to the person watching," he says. "They're not improvising, but they choose distances, for example. It works at a very refined level. Say they look a person in the eye: They can make that look longer or shorter, stronger or more shy."
Since its premiere in 1995, Hautnah has continued to raise eyebrows in Europe, and not just among conservatives. Ruckert says a number of choreographers, dancers, and critics have found it crass. "Some of the objections have to do with the idea that the dancers sell their work the way a baker sells his sandwiches," he says. "This concrete relationship between the art and the cash might be more acceptable in America, but in Europe it's still something taboo."
In New York, the sexual overtones are more likely to cause a stir. But Shelton says that would greatly misconstrue the work. "It was very sensual, but not pornographic in any sense of the word," she says. "People have been calling it lap dancing. It's not that at all."
DTW's David R. White, who turned Shelton on to Hautnah after seeing it in Munich last year, regards it as a theatrical Rorschach test. "The implications, erotic or otherwise, are in your head," he says. "It's much more about the repressed self peeking out. Theater is usually set up in a way that neutralizes us, but in this piece you don't know what the setting is going to be," White adds. "The closer you get, it's like approaching the speed of theatrical light."
People often ask whether seeing Hautnahis like seeing a therapist, visiting a hooker, or confessing to a priest. None of these comparisons quite fit. Ruckert says it's closer to the intricate duet of a Japanese tea ceremony or the ritual of putting a child to bed. "It's a very simple thing: One person is telling a story to another," he says. "In the end it's just theater, story, illusion. A small story where you're part of it onstage."
"We don't sell sex," he adds. "It's something much better."