Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA; October 24, 2014

Claudia Bauer

Sasha Waltz & Guests in 'Impromptus'.  Photo © Sebastian Bolesch

Sasha Waltz & Guests in ‘Impromptus’.
Photo © Sebastian Bolesch

Sasha Waltz & Guests opened their two-night Berkeley run of “Impromptus” in a half-full Zellerbach Hall. It’s a shame that so many people missed out on a rewarding evening of dance.

Waltz and her dancers created “Impromptus” in 2004. Some people might have doubted that a ten-year-old contemporary work would still have resonance (or maybe they just stayed home to watch the Giants in the World Series). But resonant it is, and vital and compelling too. “Impromptus” makes a melodic, intimate and almost fully-clothed departure from Waltz’s usual avant-garde dance-theater work and abstract sound scores (it’s the first work she choreographed to classical music). In the self-imposed restrictions of simple linen garments and Franz Schubert’s music, the Berlin-based choreographer found the freedom to explore emotional, rather than intellectual, territory. At 75 minutes without an intermission, “Impromptus” is a deeply personal journey.

Set to five of Schubert’s impromptus and four lieder, performed live onstage by pianist Cristina Marton and mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff, the work’s nine plotless sections unfold on two raked, uneven platforms that infuse the stage with unsettled energy. An enormous, asymmetrical trapezoid swings gently on wires in the background; clad in wood veneer, it lends organic contrast to the angular platforms. The set represents the dualities Waltz explores in the piece; in her words, the “states between floating weightlessly and being off balance.”

Waltz’s seven dancers embody that theme in movement that veers from the literally pedestrian – walking forward, running backward and prancing in ever-changing pairs, trios, singles and ensembles – to mesmerizing cantilevered duets that seemed to defy physics. At the end of the first section, after the “Impromptu in F minor” fades away, two men and two women continue their unisex duets in silence. With Butoh-esque deliberateness and mind-boggling strength, they roll upward from their partners’ outstretched arms, over a shoulder or onto a back, and hang there gripless, as though tethered by some interpersonal magnetism. They roll down and rotate around their partners’ waists, then reconfigure in countless illogical ways, like a human Calder mobile. The effect is breathtaking.

'Impromptus'.  Photo © Sebastian Bolesch

‘Impromptus’.
Photo © Sebastian Bolesch

Other, utterly mundane sections connect those mesmerizing suspensions back to the earth. The ensemble draws on the stage floor in red chalk, which billows into a cloud over their heads. Later, two dancers remove their water-filled galoshes and rinse the others’ feet, turning the dust into sanguine rivulets that trail down the sloped stage. During a tender duet by Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola and Niannian Zhou, a trapdoor opens behind them to reveal a tub for two frolicsome nude women to bathe in; they eventually towel off and go on their way, blasé as can be. And when Yael Schnell stands at the edge of the platform and arches over backward, pausing there for a minute, maybe two, it’s a startling show of mastery after an earlier phrase that had her wandering blindly with her dress pulled up over her head.

“Impromptus” continually cycles between these highs and lows, gaining emotional momentum along the way; silent breaks between the musical pieces create troughs in the rhythm. The work has its slow moments, but just when the movement seems decodable, the ensemble breaks into pieces, or a duet becomes a trio, or two dancers on opposite sides of the stage dance in a rare moment of unison. “Impromptus” is always changing and always seeking balance.

For all that arty expressionism, there’s no pretension about “Impromptus”. There is sincerity in the movement, and a craving for human connection in the choreography. As virtuosic as the music is, it simply expresses the vulnerability of a troubled, all-too-human artist. By combining them, Waltz achieves a simple, ambitious intention: to “connect you to your inner world, to your soul.”

More from “Impromptus”, both photos below © Sebastian Bolesch

Sasha Waltz & Guests: Impromptus_3            Sasha Waltz & Guests: Impromptus_4