Dancing to Robert Walser | The New Yorker

If you have never heard of the Swiss turn-of-the-twentieth-century novelist and limited-story author Robert Walser,

If you have never heard of the Swiss turn-of-the-twentieth-century novelist and limited-story author Robert Walser, you’re not by yourself. But he has a veritable military of admirers, and they contain no a lot less distinguished figures than Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and W. G. Sebald, who, in an essay revealed posthumously in The New Yorker, explained Walser, appositely, as “a clairvoyant of the compact.” Walser, who was born in 1878 into a reasonably affluent spouse and children primarily based in Biel, Switzerland, expert penury early in existence, when his father went bankrupt. From that issue onward, even with a short time period of accomplishment and attractiveness in Berlin that lasted about 5 a long time (from 1905 to 1910), all through which he revealed a few novels and countless quick stories, he under no circumstances discovered his monetary footing.

In his novel “Jakob von Gunten,” Walser tells the tale of a younger gentleman who enrolls himself in an academy for butlers in purchase to qualify for a properly-paying out job at 1 of the grand homes that dot the German countryside. A long time before, Walser had himself attended these kinds of an august establishment, and experienced gone on to serve table for a couple of months in a Silesian castle. (Evidently, butlering did not suit him as nicely as he experienced hoped.) At many moments, he also worked as a financial institution clerk, an inventor’s assistant, and in a factory. (I have pieced this biography with each other from numerous essays and from Susan Bernofsky’s introduction to Walser’s short fiction, “Microscripts,” which she translated into English for New Instructions. Before long, even though, there will be a substantially much better supply: Bernofsky’s future Walser biography for Yale College Press.)

After leaving Berlin, Walser, depressed by lousy e book product sales and his relative isolation, finished up living, alone, in a sequence of furnished rooms back again household in Switzerland and, finally, right after suffering hallucinations—insanity ran in the family—in a sanatorium in Bern, and then another, in Herisau. He invested the past 20-a few years of his existence, from 1933 to 1956, in the latter institution. He ongoing to publish at very first, and took heaps of prolonged walks. (He had the time!) The Second Environment War does not feel to have influenced him significantly (contrary to the Initially, in which he was conscripted to build war fortifications and contracted Spanish influenza). Walser died in 1956, at the age of seventy-8, of a heart attack for the duration of 1 of those walks, on Xmas Working day, in a snowy discipline in the vicinity of the sanatorium. He was extra or fewer overlooked, besides by a tiny group of devotees. The very first translations of Walser’s do the job, by Christopher Middleton—who read about him from just one of his learners when he was teaching English in Zurich—began to show up in the nineteen-fifties, but genuine curiosity didn’t start out to increase until eventually about the time of his centenary, in 1978.

How do you translate all of this into a dance, or even a perform of dance theatre? The materials feels both of those so deeply literary and, at the identical time, so totally deflating. The issue is a solitary guy whose writings tended to observe the trivia of his solitary lifestyle, and who died by yourself in the snow—this rarely seems like a thing to dance about. But that is precisely what the choreographer John Heginbotham and the illustrator Maira Kalman have established out to do. The piece, entitled “Herz Schmerz,” or “heart agony,” a rhyme equally silly and sad—and not a Walser quote—will première at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, in New York, on October 10th.

Kalman is a longtime admirer of Walser. Her quick, beautifully illustrated meditation on the author appears at the close of “Microscripts,” a quantity of obsessive, taut very little texts that Walser wrote in neat code on little slips of paper. She and Heginbotham have attempted anything like this in advance of: in their perform “The Ideas of Uncertainty,” from 2017, also encouraged by one particular of Kalman’s illustrated publications. That perform, as well, was a selection of particular impressions, a collage of visuals, words, and ways set to audio and carried out by a group of buddies, some but not all dancers. Both equally Heginbotham and Kalman are devoted walkers and absolutely free associators, typically at the similar time. That could not make for the most structured collaborative course of action, but, supplied ample time, their no cost associations make it possible for a specified simplicity and inner logic to emerge, after lots of, lots of tips have appear and gone.

The most important distinction involving “Herz Schmerz” and “The Concepts of Uncertainty” is that this time the solid is largely produced up of non-dancers. John Heginbotham, who was a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group for most of the early two-hundreds, has taken off himself from the motion. In any situation, he considers himself only half a dancer at this place: “I was a dancer,” he stated, “but I’m also genuinely not a dancer.” Kalman, who is sixty-nine, is dancing in the display, as perfectly as speaking from memory, two things she is not at all applied to carrying out and which, she admits, make her feel really vulnerable. There are two actors in the solid, David Barlow and Daniel Pettrow, both equally of whom have a lanky grace but no genuine dance education. “When I look at choreography accomplished on men and women who are not classically trained,” Heginbotham explained, “I like that you can definitely see how they by natural means shift, in unconscious means. I’m extra mindful of their humanity.” And then, like a limpid stream in a area of brush, there is Maile Okamura, a fellow Mark Morris veteran. Right before that, she was a ballet dancer. Her exceptionally pure, pristine way of moving presents the work’s silent heart. All 5 performers are mates.

A further central determine sits at a compact table onstage, just to the correct of the key action. Susan Bernofsky, Walser’s biographer and the translator of seven of his books, folds and unfolds a white cloth napkin, serenely, for the length of the present, which lasts a little under an hour. About and above, Bernofsky folds the serviette into the form of a foot, a person of quite a few styles incorporated in a butlering handbook that was printed for the duration of the interval when Walser was a servant in schooling. Bernofsky was introduced in as a expert at very first, but, after she gave the forged a tutorial in serviette folding, Heginbotham resolved to put her onstage with the other folks. Like an hourglass, Bernofsky marks the time. “Mostly,” she advised me, “I think about Robert Walser. I visualize his late several years in the medical center and the really regimen issues he did with his arms, although his head could be anywhere. In the meantime, the dancers are all all around me, residing out factors that are like stations in a existence.”

For the reason that of the combined forged, Heginbotham experienced to come across a widespread movement language that all people could master. Numerous of the piece includes strolling and running, touching or nearly touching, lying down, acquiring up, shaking, speaking. Some of it feels a minimal bit like a pantomime, even though not in the literal sense—more like a dialogue in which you just can’t really make out the phrases. Kalman waves her arms about like a wizard the forged associates guide one a different all over, fingers curled, as if putting 1 another beneath a spell, only to be put below a spell in transform. In reality, practically nothing in “Herz Schmerz” is literal or instantly quoted from any of Walser’s textbooks. Other than the recitation of a few passages from “The Wander,” a 1917 novella, and a small tale from the prior 12 months, entitled “Nervous,” the references to Walser are oblique, atmospheric, and subjective. “I imagine of these things as metaphorical threads,” Bernofsky stated. If a gentleman, lying in opposition to a white qualifications, should guide you to believe of a dead male lying in the snow, so be it.

But, lest the audience be unhappy, there is also dancing in “Herz Schmerz,” considerably of it contained in two delightful minimal sections that keep with you when you assume about the piece afterward. One is a catchy gavotte—the new music is by the Swiss composer Hans Huber, a contemporary of Walser’s—with a motif of 4 increasing notes, adopted by a playfully cascading descending scale, during which the dancers execute a sequence of light-weight, staccato, weaving techniques, travelling sideways. (The musicians, Caitlin Sullivan, on the cello, and Pedja Muzijevic, on the piano, are onstage with the dancers. They, also, are friends of Heginbotham’s.) “It took me some time to find out that sideways weaving sequence,” Kalman confessed with a snicker. “I hold telling John he can hearth me at any time.” During the more time legato notes, they wipe at the air with their arms, a very Mark Morris shift. Close to the finish, they do a hand dance in canon, one just after the other. It’s so simple, and so correctly attuned to the tunes, you practically want to sign up for in.

The other dance is a melancholy solo for Maile Okamura. She looks to dance for herself, executing essential balletic actions to a lilting waltz-like melody. It could audio like very little, but you could observe her do tiny arabesques and tendus for hrs.

The result of the exhibit, which I saw as a perform in progress in the course of a recent rehearsal, is modest, and at the exact same time not so modest. As the title implies, it leaves a soreness in your heart, a slight feeling of desolation. At the conclusion of “The Wander,” the protagonist reflects, “There is 1 darkish path into the other earth, the route down into the pit, into the earth.” We’re all susceptible, mortal, and by yourself. This is a sentiment with which Kalman can relate. “As you get older, it’s pretty present, that pretty quiet despair and perception of your aloneness,” Kalman mentioned. “It doesn’t suggest you are sitting down there miserably crying all working day, though, you know, at some point in the working day, tears may perhaps be get rid of.”