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Interview: Sasha Waltz

What’s it like to dance on top of the staircase railings in the Grand Hall foyer?

»The Elbphilharmonie is like a big steamship«

Sasha Waltz

Choreographer Sasha Waltz and her dance company took over the Elbphilharmonie for four days: Francis Poulenc’s choral work »Figure Humaine« formed the basis of the production with which they christened the building’s foyers from 1 to 4 January. The accompanying music was by Hildegard von Bingen, Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, Dmitri Shostakovich and others, and more than 80 dancers and musicians took part, the violinist Carolin Widmann among them.

Sasha Waltz & Guests in the Elbphilharmonie
Vocalconsort Berlin / Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal

What was it about the Elbphilharmonie that particularly inspired you?

There are so many associations here. From the outside, the Elbphilharmonie is like a huge wave rising up out of the surrounding water. And this connection with the sky and the water can be felt inside as well: sometimes to quite dramatic effect, like when you walk up really close to the big panes of glass and find yourself standing at the edge of the building. At that moment you can really physically feel the force inherent in a glance upwards or downwards.

The interior, in turn, has its own clear focus, leading the way to either the Recital Hall or the Grand Hall, and the latter in particular has another whole range of associations in store: it’s like a big steamship that pushes the foyers around to the sides as if it were displacing water.

And then there’s the structure’s outer skin, whose surface is made up of lots and lots of wavelets, as if you’re looking down from above at water ruffled by the breeze. So the architecture itself already shows that there are certain directions in the space that we can follow.

Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal
Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal © Bernd Uhlig

You once said that you develop the individual movements of your choreography from the »atmosphere of the room«. Can you be more specific?

I pay exact attention to the architecture and exploit the possibilities it offers. Where are the lines of sight, what directions are dictated by the walls, and where does the architecture provide for movement? Often enough, I derive the details of my choreography from the function of architectural features; for example, in the Elbphilharmonie the wide wooden banisters and the stairs with their individual angles already suggest certain movements. The atmosphere is heavily influenced by the architecture. I listen to what the architecture tells me.

Peggy Grelat-Dupont / Sergiu Matis / Liza Alpízar Aguilar / Corey Scott-Gilbert / Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal
Peggy Grelat-Dupont / Sergiu Matis / Liza Alpízar Aguilar / Corey Scott-Gilbert / Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal © Bernd Uhlig

Are the dance and the accompanying music then laid down exactly, or are there also breathing spaces within this structure?

A lot of the choreography is laid down before the performance, but improvisation also occurs at certain points. I would tend to call it a »structured improvisation«, i.e. an improvisation with clearly determined rules.

Sasha Waltz
Sasha Waltz © Bernd Uhlig

The centre of the whole performance musically is Poulenc’s a cappella piece »Figure Humaine«. Why did you choose this particular work?

»Figure Humaine« was written during the Second World War, and in my opinion also stands for the current state of the world: anger and hatred are widespread, violence, terror and war. Poulenc’s work is a summons to reconciliation and humanity. It offers hope for the future, but first we have to pass through a veil of darkness. Like Poulenc’s contemporaries, we are living in difficult and troubled times, times when conflict is rife.

I feel that one cannot ignore this, even though the opening of the Elbphilharmonie is a joyful occasion. Thus we decided not just to play light-hearted Baroque music: that wouldn’t have felt right. I believe that artists in particular have a duty to confront reality. In that context, I see »Figure Humaine« on the one hand as admonitory, but also as a symbol of hope. The last movement of the work leads into a hymn of freedom: »Liberté«.

Vocalconsort Berlin / Carolin Widmann / Sasha Waltz
Vocalconsort Berlin / Carolin Widmann / Sasha Waltz © Bernd Uhlig

What effect does the special placing of the dancers and the audience have?

I would say that the spatial experience alone triggers a completely different perception of the music. Sitting in a concert, in the confines of a chamber music recital for example, you experience the music quite differently. Here, you can hear sounds from the distance and slowly stroll towards them; and at the same time you hear the dancers’ steps and their breathing, as well as all the other sounds around you, the audience included. Also, the musicians change position, so that the music is in motion and not static.

Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal
Sasha Waltz & Guests Rehearsal © Bernd Uhlig

Was it a serious restriction for you that no music can be played in the Grand Hall before the official opening on 11 January?

Yes, I found this to be a major challenge, and tried to respond by working with dancers and sounds instead. But of course the idea is that you enter the foyers with a sense of expectation; you’re prepared to walk into the concert hall and you expect to hear something there as well. So it’s disappointing to find that silence reigns. I have to accept this tension – and the audience likewise.