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The Contemporary Dance World's "Friends"

April 15, 2009

The German choreographer Sasha Waltz's evening-length dance piece, Travelogue 1 - Twenty to Eight depicts the daily lives of five roommates. With its comic view of the relationships between a group of young urbanites and pressing sense of immediacy, the piece brings the American television series Friends to mind.

Created in 1993, the work not only preempted Friends by a year, but it's a great deal more captivating than the iconic TV show in my opinion.

I caught the piece at Berlin's trendy, new riverside arts space, RadialSystem V last week in anticipation of its arrival in San Francisco in May as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Waltz recently remounted the work with new dancers. The SFIAF appearance represents the American premiere of this new iteration of the work and festival-goers are in for a treat.

Set against the backdrop of a city apartment complete with refrigerator, murphy bed and kitchen table and chairs, the piece observes at extremely close range the social interactions between a group of mixed personalities. The dancers in the piece are all very different -- a point made explicit by the mixed ethnic makeup of the cast and the opening passage, in which we hear a variety of Asian and European languages spoken. Yet despite the differences of their backgrounds, the characters all manage somehow to coexist.

The situation is full of drama. Dancers fly hyperactively in and out of doorways, slamming them as they go over and over again. There's a loony, almost silent movie-era feel to some of the comic shtick. A section towards the end of the piece between a dancer and the murphy bed feels like something out of a Harold Lloyd film with its technically complex and hilarious contortions and horizontal jumps.

Waltz also knows how to be sensual and serious. A long, passionate duet in which a male and female dancer fuse almost every part of their bodies together has to be one of the most erotic sequences I've ever experienced in a modern dance piece. The duet makes the pratfalls between Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer look completely sexless.

I recently watched a couple of old episodes of Friends, a series which I quite enjoyed when I was growing up. The plots and jokes seem really naff and dated to me now. Contrastingly, Waltz's Travelogue has traveled 16 years since its inception and it still feels fresh.


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