When Sasha Waltz & Guests last appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2002, the dancers blasted through Waltz’s 2000 K , the first work in a trilogy that tested the extremes the body can reach or be pushed toward. The performers dropped to the floor like logs, picked one another up by folds of skin, mashed themselves against sheets of glass. Impromptus (2004) is a kinder, gentler work, but no less bleak.
Waltz is a co-artistic director of Berlin’s Schaub am Lehniner Platz. She needn’t stint on dancers or scenery and has produced some extravagant contemporary spectacles. She has said that in making Impromptus she wanted to create something “precious, small, and delicate.” But, although the cast numbers only seven, the stage design by Thomas Schenk and the choreographer is magnificent in its austerity. Two angled, sloping platforms fill the stage, the higher one connected to the lower one by several steps. At the back hangs a large trapezoidal panel that sways very slightly. The illusion is that of an almost floating, unstable landscape, and the first dancer to appear, Xuan Shi, emphasizes the gravitational hazard—tilting off balance, stumbling and reeling as he travels up and down the large lower platform.
One of Waltz’s inspirations for the piece was “Der Wanderer an den Mond,” one of three Schubert lieder that Judith Simonis sings during the 70 minute dance. The dancers—alone, paired, grouped—are wanderers; they traverse this barren plain, move on, and return. However, they leave traces of their sojourn on the environment. Midway through the piece, various ones of them paint red or black lines down the legs of others and extend the lines along the floor. In case we wondered why Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola and Claudia de Serpa Soares have trekked onstage wearing rubber boots full of water that burble a rhythm with their every step, now we understand the symbolism. The water doesn’t represent the tears of the lamenting maiden Simonis sang about earlier (well, maybe. . .); poured from the boots, it causes the painted tracks to bleed and run down the slope. Rolling, crawling, thrashing dancers smear the color, reddening their garments and skin. Only for two is there purification. Maria Marti Colusi and tall Clémentine Deluy, who’ve struggled together earlier, undress and splash in a small pool that has miraculously opened in the higher platform.
Schubert’s ravishing music (primarily five impromptus played by Cristina Marton) cloaks the dancers, sweetening their impassivity, affecting their phrasing. The music speaks of yearning for them, while they remain mute—united in solitude and uncertainty. In duets, as in a quartet, partners only occasionally manipulate each other with their hands; we see one person laid athwart another’s thighs, balanced on another’s back, gripped almost invisibly by clenched armpits, all the while sliding around into new sculptural configurations, the lifter becoming the lifted. Their bodies don’t seem to mold together but to slip lightly on skin. The effect is strangely beautiful. Luc Dunberry and Michal Mualem bring a robust dynamic to their encounter; Esnaola and Colusi seem almost unable to touch. I found the last duet, for Shi and Soares, most poignant—less structured as a display of evolving shapes, more nuanced. Several times, Soares advances on tiptoe, almost as if sleepwalking; Shi guides her, catching her as she falls backward. For a moment at the end, she’s on his shoulders. Then they back away from each other in silence.
Waltz’s dancers, some of whom have contributed choreography to the company’s repertory, are wonderful. One unforgettable image: Deluy frozen in an extreme back arch—a living embodiment of “hanging back.” Impromptus is a fragile work, as full of emptiness as it is of beauty.