"Dancing about architecture" is a pop culture expression meaning something that is pointless or impossible, but Berlin-based choreographer Sasha Waltz (right above) does the impossible with her work, Korper.
It is presented at the Singapore International Festival of Arts on May 31 and June 1 at the Esplanade Theatre. The title means "body" in German.
First staged in 2000, Korper was inspired by the architecture and symbolism of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It is a sometimes tender, sometimes horrifying exploration of the architecture of the human body. It considers the body's components individually through feats of athleticism and also uses the dozen dancers' bodies as building blocks on stage.
Korper developed from a project back in 1999, when Waltz created a work responding to the Jewish Museum, a space which records the contributions of German Jews and their erasure from history under Hitler's pogrom in World War II. Key features of the museum include a Holocaust Tower, in memory of those killed, as well as a Garden Of Exile And Emigration, remembering those who were forced to leave Berlin.
Waltz, 56, says: "Because the architecture was working with the history between Germany and Jews, there are issues that are translated in an architectural language."
Similarly, she translated these issues into dance vocabulary and expanded on the initial project to create Korper. "The horrors we took in and imprinted in our collective memory are a big part of Korper, but there are other issues like analysing the body - what are we as human beings? I reflect on that."
Korper was co-created with sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn, who was tasked by Waltz to compose "a soundscape that can reflect the landscape of the body". The 13 original dancers who premiered the work were also key collaborators, with Waltz basing her choreography on improvisations in the studio.
Since its premiere, Korper has toured more than 29 countries and more than 47 cities. Waltz perfected the choreography over the first 20 shows and has not changed the work since. "It was fully written," as she puts it.
Sometimes, she makes small adaptations to the theatre or location. In Singapore, she will not be allowed to show smoking on stage. She is fine with that. "We should not set a bad example, I suppose," she says.
The only time she refuses to tour the work is if restrictions are placed on nudity, a key element of the performance. "For me, this piece is really about looking at the body like a doctor. You don't go to the doctor and keep your clothes on," she says.
Of the 12 dancers presenting the work in Singapore, all but four are the original performers who premiered Korper, and also worked with Waltz on the museum piece in 1999.
"When we started, they were in their early 20s and it's a long time - 20 years of performing this work. It has always been performed and alive and carried in their bodies. It touches me to see that there are really people on stage, not just perfect machines.
"They identify very deeply with the piece. It adds another layer because you see bodies that have been ageing, women who have had children. Their understanding of the body has changed."
She adds that the physical demands of Korper do put a time limit on the performers' ability to keep doing the work. "There will probably be a time when we will need to discuss it and stop performing it. It will be hard, but we have passed the piece on to other ballet groups."