Now that the human body has been OK’d as a component of discourse by scholars in a variety of disciplines, along comes a dance maker to deconstruct it. In Körper, Sasha Waltz, prominent among Germany’s younger choreographers and a director of the famously vanguard theater Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, disassembles her dancers in alarming and punitive ways. The movement is overwhelmingly strong and sudden. Performers crash to the floor—or are dropped—like logs. Intersecting in ingenious trios or half-naked and trapped as flat as sardines in a glass display case embedded in a looming, diagonally set wall, their bodies rarely adapt by nestling or coiling. They slant like boards, curve like wheels set on edge.
The Holocaust resonates through this comfortless world like Hans Peter Kuhn’s elegantly savage score. We cringe when people are hoisted by folds of skin, shudder as they are measured in senselessly odd fashions. Even the formally beautiful piles into which they stack themselves have a sinister undertone. Yet two women who paste prices on each other are not just auctioning off body parts; they’re estimating plastic surgery costs. Witty as well as disturbing are the stories people tell; at every mention of an anatomical element, they confidently indicate the wrong one. (Tall Grayson Millwood makes this alienation curiously touching.) A woman describes opening her eyes and flips her naked breasts; a man mentioning his throat may run a hand down his calf (“translators” standing casually by pantomime the correct part). Further dissections involve a team manipulating white bowls to form someone’s clattering spine, and two dancers becoming a single person whose legs are on backward.
There’s a section of absurdist chaos that evokes low-end Pina Bausch: a woman ice-skating, a man skiing down the wall, another using a fishing rod as a gun, another putting on myriad underpants, and so on. The many stunning images in the piece explain Waltz’s acclaim in Germany, yet within its elaborate setting, Körper seems hollow, as if these people’s individualities had been excised before we ever met them.
Discipline Is Freedom, the piece that so often opens programs by Garth Fagan, might stand as title for Fagan’s entire oeuvre (much of which is on display at the Joyce through Sunday). Within his often architectural structures, virtuosity functions not only as flying buttresses, but as perfectly controlled embellishments that stun you with a particular dancer’s skill yet don’t rock the compositional boat. Norwood Pennewell launches himself into a startling, bent-legged jump with little hint of preparation. Natalie Rogers lifts a leg skyward as serenely as if she were pointing a finger.
In his new Translation Transition, Fagan hews to the Jamaica Jazz All Stars’ renditions of pieces by Clement Dodds, Wayne Shorter, and Harry Johnson. Jazz meets ska, reggae, and mento in music that’s mellow even in its abrasive moments. Fagan is rightfully loving of his superb dancers. He sends Rogers, Pennewell, and the equally marvelous Sharon Skepple along a diagonal line in a kind of three-way antiphonal conversation, but separates them from this orderly jigsaw puzzle so we can know their individual brands of his precise yet supple movement: Rogers slow and teasing, Pennewell nonchalant with bursts of speed, Skepple with her flyaway limbs.
Steve Humphrey, who’s been a power in the company since its inception 32 years ago, partners sleekly beautiful newcomer Keisha Clarke in the new work’s fine second section. At the end of it, infected perhaps by this canny merger, a very cool chorus line of six that’s been intermittently traveling across the stage with a crouched-over, resilient side-step bursts from conformity into counterpoint. And in the last section, all 14 dancers gloriously affirm that discipline, that freedom.