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Edinburgh International Festival 2005

Sasha Waltz and Guests - 'Impromptus'

by David Mead

August 16, 2005 -- Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland

Sasha Waltz is known for breaking boundaries with her hard-edged tanztheater style. She breaks them with "Impromtus" too, but here, in a work rather more lyrical than her previous pieces; it’s the boundaries of space she has concerned herself with.

All the action takes place on a set comprising two overlapping rhomboid-shaped stages, tilted towards the audience but at different angles while a third stands vertically at the rear. The whole thing looks like a section from a cubist painting. Wonderfully abstract, the design could represent pretty much anything. It does, however, emphasise the feeling of space, especially as the dancers often exit directly upstage as if the stage never ends.

The score of four Schubert lieder (songs) and five piano pieces from 1827 was performed beautifully by mezzo-soprano Judith Simonis and by pianist Cristina Marton. Given how well the music compliments the dance, it’s perhaps surprisingly this is Waltz’s first piece using classical music. Like the music, "Impromptus" seems more a grouping of ideas around a theme rather than a single work. Although each section appears to form an almost independent scene, the transitions are never jarring, Waltz moving us seamlessly from one to the next. While much of the movement appears to be abstract, the dancers constantly work with and acknowledge each other. At times there was a feeling that it was all about human emotion and relationships but at others it seemed to be about nothing; totally abstract.

The five piano pieces were called "Impromptus" by Schubert’s publisher, who wanted to convey a sense of improvisation or spontaneity. Waltz has used them to create a piece that often does give exactly that impression. The dance is never predictable. You may think you know what is going to happen next but she is always likely to surprise you.

The dancers walk and run across the set, jumping between the sections of the stage. Sometimes they are alone, sometimes they are in pairs, sometimes all in one group, making sculptural shapes or being lifted high off the floor. Sometimes they walk bit sometimes they run, as if being swept along by the music, maybe suddenly going into reverse.

There are moments of surprise and gentle humour. In one section the seven dancers seem to be following each other in some sort of game. They suddenly realises they are being followed, stop and look round. Another close behind looks suitably sheepish, like some child caught doing something they shouldn’t, before going their own way once more.

Elsewhere, a pool appears as if by magic, and two women bathe. You expect that the usual nudity is coming (why do so many choreographers feel that is a necessity?), but no. Waltz surprises us and, after splashing water they modestly wrap themselves in towels and leave.

Humour is perhaps most apparent in the ‘wellington boot’ section. Two dancers appear wearing wellingtons half full of water. It’s all very simple but all very effective as they walk around the stage or sit on the edge of the set swinging their legs, sploshing away, making their own form of water music.

In the one dark section of the work, paint is used on the dancers’ bodies. The water is then poured on them, making the paint run from their feet down the sloping set. Is this some macabre metaphor for death nearing (Schubert was close to death when he composed the "Impromptus")? Or simply another game?

"Impromptus" held attention. The seventy minutes passed by in what seemed like seconds, the dancers and musicians quite rightly receiving a great ovation at the end. European contemporary dance has a bit of a reputation, sometimes deserved, for being inaccessible. Waltz’s choreography here proves that is not always the case.

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