at the Harold Washington Library Theatre

November 8 and 9

There’s a moment near the end of Susanne Linke’s Flut (“Flood”) when you realize that she can either dance the climactic feeling of this solo or let it be. She lets it be, abandoning the stage to the final chords of Gabriel Faure’s Elegie while the house lights come up.

At the core of Linke’s great art is a great humility, the kind that leads an artist to perfectionism: because it’s so easy for things to go wrong, no detail can be left to chance. Linke not only choreographed and performed the four solos on her program last weekend at the Harold Washington Library Theatre (presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College and the Morrison-Shearer Foundation), she also designed the costumes and collaborated on the lighting (with Johan Delaere). In each piece she aims at a single but complex effect, and every well-chosen detail contributes–not only costume and lighting but music and, most important, the character of the dancing.

And what dancing this was. Linke is German, a fully mature artist of 47 who once studied with the great German expressionists Mary Wigman and Dore Hoyer, later at the school founded by Kurt Jooss, and still later with current German phenom Pina Bausch. These are terrific credentials, but the important thing is what Linke has done with her training. Technique is not an end in itself for her; paradoxically it’s a means of transcending the physical. Though Linke is never obscene or exhibitionistic, you sense in her an artist who will pursue her ends shamelessly, who will do whatever it takes.

One of those ends is to remake herself in each dance–and transformation is also the subject of her first solo, Wandlung (“Change”), an homage to Mary Wigman. It opens with Linke flat on her back, bathed in a glowing golden light, her chin lifted and strong. She’s not relaxed, not a human being in a natural pose; she seems carved, a ceremonial figure better suited to the lid of a sarcophagus than to a bed. Slowly one knee lifts, and an arm. Moments later, torso arched, she fully achieves the effect of levitation by rotating 180 degrees, still lying on her back and with no apparent effort or even movement.

Many dancers focus audience attention on the source of a particular movement, the impulse coming from a particular part of the body; that can be part of the dancer’s skill. But Linke’s dancing is seamless, here a continuous rolling and stretching without identifiable phrases, each body part completely articulate yet working in unity with all the others. Nothing is gestural, nothing recalls human life, nothing looks like any dance you’ve ever seen before. Everything is strange, nothing is fake. Images from nature seem most appropriate to Wandlung, especially images of rolling, turbulent clouds–because despite her continued proximity to the floor, Linke seems to fly. Yet such natural pictures are belied by distinct impressions of a human body: calloused and chafed feet, muscles etched onto an aging form with great care and even greater effect.

More than in the other three pieces, the music for Wandlung fits the dance: an exceedingly tender 1923 recording of the Busch Quartet playing two movements from Schubert’s Der Tod und das Madchen. In the next dance, Im Bade Wannen (“Bathtubbing”), Linke changes the mood completely. Instead of letting her long blond hair float free, she has scraped it together and glued it to her head; instead of wearing a romantic dress with form-fitting bodice and flowing skirt, she has chosen a narrow tube of white, columnar and severe. Oddly, the music is Satie’s familiar, playful Gymnopedies, parts one and three, and En habit de cheval.

Im Bade Wannen is affecting in the most obscure and unlikely ways. It opens with Linke sitting on a commode; she rises, drops her skirt, carries a towel a bit upstage to an old-fashioned bathtub on legs. Blinding white light and scraped hair emphasize her skull and the luminosity of her skin–eerily she resembles the tub itself, looking hard and scoured and much older than in the first dance. She begins to circle the tub, brushing the rim with her towel; she looks serious, almost distracted–her motions and mien suggest a mad housewife. Meanwhile the music is festive, almost circuslike; she moves unpredictably into and out of rhythm with it, seeming to work her way, almost row her way, through these light, musing compositions.

Throughout Im Bade Wannen Linke opposes her weight to the considerable heft of the tub–she almost seems to be grappling serenely with an adversary: leaning against it in a sitting position, propped up by her legs and held by the strength of her draped arms; tipping it by sitting on the edge; balancing on one hip and dipping her upper body into its interior. The work’s final images further connect Linke to this homely, useful object: she lies on her side, and it lies on its side so that its drain is exposed. At that point I noticed that the circular openings for plumbing at the rear of the toilet were also exposed–and suddenly all those useful holes on the whistle-clean fixtures of the bathroom, the temple of cleanliness, reminded me of women’s useful orifices and the way women are so often trapped by their preoccupation with dirt and cleanliness.

In Orient-Okzident, to music of the same name by Yannis Xenakis, Linke shifts to another sphere, an almost planetary region of grieving, futile effort. Xenakis’s music is modern and very cold, filled with great winds and the sound of ice crystals melting away. Linke crawls on from one corner of the stage; with her head down, her hair brushed over her face, her butt high, her legs crooked, and her feet flexed, she’s almost not recognizably human. (In this dance she rarely shows her face; her head seems merely a ball of hair, which she sometimes lashes about, each individual strand a fury orbiting her rolling skull.) Without really contorting herself she gives the effect of contortion–she seems all jutting bones. Her black costume covers one arm, leaves the other bare, and covers her legs just to the knee; we see a jumble of acute angles in black and white.

On the Wednesday before these performances Linke gave a lecture at the library. One of the things she explained was that German dance is “heavy stuff.” “We like to suffer,” she said lightheartedly, though whether the “we” referred to Germans or people in general was not clear. Nowhere on this program does she suffer more than in Orient-Okzident, in which she struggles to make her way from one corner to the other, pulled back two body lengths for every one she achieves. Eventually she makes it–but at what cost, with what effort. The traveling hardly seems worth the agony, but perhaps she has no choice.

Traveling also figures in the last dance, Flut, where it is equally unproductive but more benign. Linke has chosen a rehearsal tape of Faure’s Elegie, so we often hear conductor Pablo Casals singing the melody or interrupting the musicians to give them instructions. An odd, almost antitheatrical choice–yet Linke uses the inherent mood and meaning of the music plus the occasion of the rehearsal to elaborate on how we approach our lives, how difficult it is to distinguish “real” motion from moving in place.

Her one prop is a huge square of pale blue cloth elaborately folded accordion-style and rolled; her task is to unroll and unfold it, though as often as not she undoes her own work. At one early point she repeats an obsessive back-and-forth phrase, unrolling the cloth a little bit more each time. It’s like knitting–in order to go forward she has to go back, picking up old stitches–and similarly soothing and maddening. It’s hard to see the blue cloth, which sometimes resembles a road, sometimes a billowing sea, as anything but a metaphor for life itself; but the halting rehearsal tape and Linke’s often prosaic movement, which moves in and out of sync with the music, save the dance from sentimentality, as does her final act of self-effacement.

Yet to describe Flut, or any of the other dances, only conceptually ignores too much. Linke’s dancing is a miracle of simultaneous control and abandon; every toe, every finger, is right, yet she maintains a flowing continuity. And she has incredible stage presence–though she never conceals her face in Flut, there comes a moment when she shows it to us, standing with her feet entangled in the blue cloth and her blue eyes burning, and it’s a revelation. I dreamed of Linke the night of the performance, and she was always an entire troupe, a flock of dancers. That multiplicity, that shamanistic ability to change shape, is something I’ve never seen before. And very possibly will never see again. Susanne Linke is simply one of the 20th century’s great dancers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gert Weigelt.