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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Pina, Dark and Light

Pina Bausch in Café Müller. Photo: J. Paulo Pimenta
By Susan Yung

"It is not that I wanted to confront people. The misunderstanding is not that I love violence, it was quite the opposite. I was terrified of violence, but I wanted to understand the person doing the violence. That was the exploration." —Pina Bausch

This fall, when Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch returns to BAM for its 15th engagement from September 14 to 24, it comes full circle with the works Café Müller (1978) and The Rite of Spring (1975), both performed in the company’s inaugural run at BAM in 1984. The look and feel of Bausch’s repertory over the decades has, for the large part, shifted from dark and literally earthbound to light and air- and water-suffused. Ask longtime viewers which they prefer and you’ll get resounding votes for each. Taken together, they form a body of work which, while cut short by Bausch’s sudden death in 2009, is one of our era’s most influential and uncompromising artistic outputs.

While contemporary theater artists may not consciously or overtly quote Pina, she has emerged as one of the most influential theater artists working over the past half-century. Is a dance performance interrupted by a random bit of spoken text or a quotidian gesture? Are seemingly unrelated vignettes mixed together in a performance? Do costumes reinforce or subvert gender stereotypes? Does a jukebox soundtrack shift moods and accumulate to provide a changing and varied emotional landscape? These are all threads that Pina repeatedly wove into her astonishing repertory, and which have become common practices.

Two Cigarettes in the Dark. Photo courtesy of BAM Hamm Archives
Rolf Borzik designed the sets and costumes until his death in 1980; subsequently, Peter Pabst designed sets, and Marion Cito the costumes. Early Bausch works quite literally set the often formally-clad dancers in the earth, emphasizing our primal essence, or in a darker setting. The Rite of Spring and Gebirge (1984) are performed on dirt. The first emphasizes ritual and group dynamics versus an individual. Café Müller draws on Bausch’s childhood, when she spent time in a hotel-adjacent café run by her parents. It takes place in a black, white, and gray restaurant full of mostly empty tables and chairs with a revolving door upstage; the varied figures populating the scene move mostly in separate bubbles. Despite its dark-earth setting, Gebirge (“mountains”) is populated with light visual witticisms—a series of actions involving blowing up, lying on, and popping balloons; a Speedo-clad major domo serving audience members an arm—his arm—sandwich.

Nelken. Photo: Ulli Weiss, copyright Pina Bausch Foundation.
Viktor (1986) takes place in a dirt pit. Periodically, as vignettes unfold—frequently humorous and daring, including an auction of sundry objects—a man shovels dirt into the pit. This emphatic reference to death is augmented by the constant later presence of a grim reaper type who seems, ominously, to be stage directing. Palermo Palermo (1989), one of the first geographically driven works, begins with a toppling concrete block wall; the remainder featured the dancers maneuvering over and around the mote-clouded rubble. (The wall’s collapse was truly shocking and something I never—and really—want to see again.) Another early work, Arien (1979), takes place in a shallow pond of water onstage; an impressively realistic hippo wades about. Even in physically threatening or oppressive circumstances, Pina delighted in the absurd and, in the face of it, peoples’ enduring abilities to fight, love, play, and look glamorous in silk dresses, stilettos, and suits while getting soaked or covered in dirt.

Floral imagery pops up throughout Bausch’s work. Nelken (Carnations; 1982) features a field of the flowers which, over the course of the evening, becomes trampled and plucked by the manic cast, seemingly possessed by a late Weimar-era fever. Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer; 1997) focuses on Hong Kong and its many glass towers and window washers. It includes a large mound of red bauhinia blossoms, on which people ski or lounge, and around which dancers ride bikes. In Two Cigarettes in the Dark (1985), verdant tropical plants are sealed within a windowed terrarium—a white, gallery-like space, but with a view of an artificial landscape. Eventually a man finds his way into the terrarium, standing awkwardly in his briefs among the plants and looking like an exhibit at a natural history museum.

The Rite of Spring. Photo: Ulli Weiss
Bausch created the Argentinian-influenced Bandoneon in 1980, but it was a few years later, in the mid-80s, that marked a pivot to emotionally lighter, travelogue-based works. It seemed that after plumbing the depths of human misery and mortality, she had reached catharsis and had finally decided to savor life’s pleasures.

A number of pieces were largely created on location-based research, incorporating native music and customs: Palermo Palermo; Danzón (Cuba; 1995); Der Fensterputzer; Masurca Fogo (Portugal; 1998); Nefés (Turkey; 2003); Bamboo Blues (India; 2007), and “…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…” (Chile; 2009). The sets become notably lighter in hue and more airy. Water returns in Nefés—a subterranean dribble pools centerstage, first forming a puddle, then a pond. In Vollmond (2006), a stream bisects the stage, presided over by a huge rock. Dancers leap off the boulder, “swim” in the water, and sweep it overhead in joyous arcs. In Danzón, projections of goldfish fill the stage, and in a particularly poignant passage, Bausch herself performed an extended solo, unfurling her arms and carving eloquent spirals, her eyes closed in ecstasy or thought.

Der Fensterputzer, 1997. Photo: Dan Rest
Pure dance passages occupy more and more stage time in later works, with solo after solo showcasing her company’s technique, and a catchy and charming ensemble phrase every now and then, moving in a line, sometimes while seated on the floor. Accompanying music is preternaturally global and eclectic—pop standards, opera, folk, jazz. Of course, there are a number of works not covered here, including operas in addition to Rite or full-length scores such as Orpheus and Eurydice, Bluebeard’s Castle, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Kontakthof, which has been danced by the company as well as by older and younger casts drawn from the community. These only serve to enrich and flesh out Bausch’s oeuvre.

September’s engagement is a chance to catch, or revisit, Bausch’s early work. Don’t miss it.

Susan Yung is senior editorial manager at BAM.

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