on Pina Bausch
Café Müller/The Rite of Spring
Brooklyn Academy of Music | September 14-24, 2017
Almost every role in Pina Bausch’s choreographic repertory could be catalogued via a close description of feet. Café Müller’s two main women may have the most iconic of Bausch’s foot choreography: the oddly assured sound of their stuttering barefoot shuffles are enduring reminders of the women’s shut eyes. They are the feet of sleepwalkers: vulnerable in their bareness (we worry) but sure in their velocity (the sleepwalker does not worry).
The Rite of Spring, the other half of the program Bausch’s Wuppertal brought to BAM over the last two weeks, also offers feet as kinetic, kinesthetic connection. There is, of course, the dirt. Spread masterfully during intermission by the stagehands as the audience watched, its fluffy brown piles are first an invitation, later protection. This shift is brought on, again, by women’s feet. The charge of Rite is always the question of which woman will be sacrificed, selected to wear the red shift that marks her as one chosen to die. The selection unfolds as one woman after another emerges from the trembling clump of women, each proposed victim holding the red dress in her hands. In succession, each woman drives her legs forward, but also shoves her toes into the ground. The dirt churns with trepidation. Each “she” hopes it might provide protection, be the barrier between her and the man.
The particularities of footfalls open Bausch’s work in several directions. The details of the way people walk point to how the Bausch world is often one where everything feels inevitable. The sleepwalking women will not get to open their eyes. The red-dressed woman can’t avoid death. Yet, these teachings of women’s feet also reveal that there are people here, and thus choices. The women do not want to die. The man says they will, and he chooses their end. Things only look inevitable if you’re not looking closely.
I have long been drawn to Bausch’s choreography, even as its gender politics keep me at a frustrated distance. In Bausch’s work, I find myself having not just kinesthetic empathy, but a sense of fleshy materiality thrust upon me that I’ve never quite experienced in any other viewing of dance. I first saw the company perform in Paris before Bausch’s death; I still see the women of Vollmond (2006), dressed in brightly colored ball gowns, swimming through the river that runs across the stage. My breath stops when I recall a longtime company member (perhaps Nazareth Panadero) performing Nefés (2003) in Berkeley. She walked the edge of the stage, slowly, and then finger-by-finger unfolded her one hand with the other. She then kneeled and did the same with an audience member’s hand. The simple motion kept us, to the end, all counting together. There is a visceral humanity in all of Bausch’s work, and it brings with it the inevitability of mortality. Experiencing others’ bodies via Bausch’s choreography is to experience slow death together.
The women’s feet on Friday at BAM hewed to this thing we know of Bausch: her tangles with mortality by way of the material. Dirt, water, breath create a sense of humanity and its stakes.
But there is no doubt that the stakes are higher for some than others: the women in a Bauschian world may dance the most virtuosic roles, but oh how the women they create onstage pay. Rite of Spring’s relationship to the intensity of inevitable female death is rather obvious: no matter how desperately the female soloist dances, she will still die.
Café Müller tells perhaps a more complicated story, but one with no more possibility for its women. The work’s central couple, danced Friday by Ophelia Young and Jonathan Fredrickson, evoke laughter from the audience as they wrestle, literally, with a script imposed upon them. The man in the black jacket places the two dancers into the same sequence—the kiss, the hold, the fall—she jumps up again, holds him tight. Her brown fingers press into his green shirt. With every grip, there’s the slightest hope she’ll overcome the script. Yet she always goes limp, and falls again.
There is the other sleepwalking woman, too, though. She has her own world, and now, watching after Bausch’s death, she is her ghost, too. (Her ghostliness is even more accentuated by Helena Pikon’s striking resemblance to Bausch.) As Café Müller ends, Bausch’s figure moves to the stage’s edge, and another woman (Panadero) drapes a warm coat across Pikon’s shoulders and places her oddly melancholic red wig over Pikon’s long black hair. It almost appears a gesture of love, or at least of caring. But in the blackness, we still hear her shuffle. She never got to open her eyes.
CLARE CROFT is a dance historian and theorist, and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.