Sasha Waltz

What do you get when German Tanztheater meets American postmodernism? Sasha Waltz.

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The first decade of the 21st century saw its fair share of catastrophes: the attack on the World Trade Center, the Indonesian earthquake and resulting tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina. In 2004, German choreographer Sasha Waltz also found herself in Corsica when a fire broke out on the north end of the island, "specifically a little village on a hill where I was enclosed with my two kids and my husband," she explains. "We were in danger and in fear of our lives." Her return to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday 3 heralds the American premiere of a 2005 work exploring, aptly, themes of destruction and renewal. Gezeiten ("Tides") is a reaction to the traumas experienced by Waltz personally and from afar: "I wanted to find out how a group of people affected by an unnamed outside crisis are able or unable to overcome this situation." The choreographer fielded questions from Berlin.

When did you start considering Gezeiten's theatrical dimensions?
For me, dance, theater, music and space all belong together. These elements have to work in the right balance. In Gezeiten, though, I decided to structure it like a triptych: It starts with an abstract and metaphysical part, followed by a theatrical and almost naturalistic part, and finishes with a surreal part, like a dream—or better, a nightmare. Music plays a constant role. I was confronting a contemporary sound-score by Jonathan Bepler, a composer well known for his works with Matthew Barney, as well as with classical music by Bach.

How has your work changed over the years? Are those changes apparent in Gezeiten?
My early work was highly theatrical, almost in the tradition of German Tanztheater, but always with strong physical material and abstract moments. The topics of my first six pieces were born in a personal, social and historical context. When I started to work at the Schaubhne [theater in Berlin], my work became more abstract and more existential. The human body, sexuality, the metaphysics of life and death, etc. Gezeiten is a piece which combines all three elements: abstract expressions of emotions, narration of theatrical situation between tragedy and comedy, and a highly visual surrealism.

Where does your movement come from?
The movement always comes from the human body. I am very rooted in American postmodern dance and everything that was started by the Judson Church movement. Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown are strong references and idols for me—but also Steve Paxton. The research period for my pieces is usually three months long and a very intensive group process with my dancers, whom I consider as creative partners as well as choreographers.

Why are you drawn to postmodern American dance?
I am so interested in the awareness studies of that time—the awareness of body and mind and all techniques that were born from it. There was a radical redefinition of dance that happened in the '60s. It broadened and opened the perspective of what dance could be, as John Cage opened the mind for a new listening to sound. We perceive the world differently now.

The idea behind Sasha Waltz & Guests is that it's an independent company with 25 permanent and 40 associate collaborators. How does it work?
Sasha Waltz & Guests has existed now for more than 15 years. It started like a dance company and became a cultural enterprise. We also produce artworks for museums, films, operas and even recently took part in the competition for the national monument of reunification. I started this company with my partner, Jochen Sandig, because we both wanted to be independent. But we also work with many different international art organizations to create new pieces. We always say that Sasha Waltz & Guests is a cluster, a bevy of artists of wide-ranging disciplines, hailing from the world over and who have converged in Berlin to develop new means of dialogue in all art forms.

In terms of Berlin's current generation of choreographers, where do you fit in?
I don't really feel connected to the current generation of choreographers. Most of them are working on soloistic projects and theoretical pseudo-intellectual concepts, which became a big fashion in Europe in the last ten years. Movement and dance as a way of expression is losing more and more of its meaning in this scene. Meg Stuart, who is also based in Berlin, is a big exception. I invest a lot in the next generation by strongly supporting the artistic development of actual and former dancers of my company—permanent dancers as well as guests. I believe that dance in its pure form is not dead.

Early in your career, Pina Bausch's name was attached to yours—you were labeled the next generation. Did it bother you?
Pina Bausch has influenced generations of artists of all disciplines all over the world. It would be too limiting to reduce her only to the dance world. I don't like it when artists are compared to each other. Each artist needs his own universe to develop.

How did you react to her death? Did you know her personally?
We had an amicable relationship. I was deeply shocked when I heard about her death. I tried to explain it to my children, and I only could say: "She was the mother of modern dance in Germany."

Sasha Waltz & Guests are at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Wed 3, Nov 5 and 6.