Like many too young to have seen Tanztheater Wuppertal in New York when Pina Bausch was still alive, my first experience was through the film Pina (2011), a phenomenal way to grasp how and where a Bausch work will hit you: like a wrecking ball to the gut. Pina reveals its magic in embedded views of already-cinematic works, in poignant interviews voiced over as we study the still faces of dancers. Bausch’s own face was austere and German with a low bun, her smirk a crack into absurdity that mirrored her artistic sensibility. One develops a sort of mother-creator adoration for the people who define a field. Bausch made sense of how contemporary-modern dance could utilize the mise-en-scène, wherein the audience didn’t happen into abstract lines in space but a world familiar and whole unto itself. She proved that bodies and physical interaction in a staged scene could succeed dialogue in making meaning: strange and existential, a world unhinged.
I first saw Tanztheater Wuppertal live in 2014, when the company came to BAM with Kontakthof (1978). A giddier example of Bausch’s choreography, Kontakthof is set in a community dance hall, with dancers of all ages in ill-fitting suits, dresses, and heels. The work is processional, funny, dealing with social dance, sex, and courtship dynamics. Yet there is a pervasive derision for humanity like the perversions of a fun house. Women walk up to us as if we are a mirror and stretch their faces back with two hands, confronting, and perhaps hating, the aging body. Characters scream, laugh menacingly, chase lecherously. The movement carries the air of hilarity, meticulously timed so it hits with the organic delivery of spoken comedy—though Bausch works in the realm of habits, ticks, gestures, and face-offs.
This year I came prepared to not only see the perfection of Bausch’s compositional eye, but the harshness of her lens. In Café Müller, dozens of tables and chairs are set so tightly as to threaten the potential for chaos and noise. Characters toddle and dive recklessly through the cafe with their eyes squeezed shut in grief, or burst through at top speed trying to clear space for the others. A man repeatedly forces a couple into an embrace, then swoops the woman’s limp body up into the man’s arms; she slides until she falls and crumples, springs back up and leaps into his embrace again. In a Bausch work, there is something about the motion of a limp limb, in the way it gathers speed: lagging, flailing, and fanning, both lovely and disturbing. It’s a family drama in which no one clearly relates; where intimacy is forcefully orchestrated, and private dances are stolen. In the final scene, the couple lift, turn, and hurl each other so that their loose arms smack against the wall, together rolling infinitely. Café Müller proposes the union of Punch & Judy and Sisyphus, a destiny to repeat ourselves and our vices, to wander lost, to trip, and to shudder.
Café Müller/The Rite of Spring
September 14 – september 24, 2017
And then comes The Rite of Spring, that diabolical force that few choreographers have succeeded with to the extent of Bausch. Watching the Rite live after studying it from film was like being in the presence of something truly sacred—an irony not lost on me in light of the primitivist fantasies of pagan ritual from which emerged the Ballets Russes original. Here, unlike Bausch’s other works, violence is not suggested or implicit: violence is the juggernaut that impels the very work.
We enter a private, utopian women’s world. Dancers in translucent shifts bask on the earthy floor, graze their arms in exploration, lead each other by the hand, and plié deeply to fondle the dirt. But the anticipation of the men’s arrival heralds guttural chaos among them and a compulsion towards hurting themselves: in a throng, they plunge clasped fists, hunch and pulse rhythmically, and launch onto men’s shoulders, perched with birdlike spinal curves and downward gazes. The movement is frighteningly authentic: slaps of skin on skin, heaving breaths, faces and shifts differently-stained with dirt and sweat move the danger beyond spectacle. In a striking moment of staging, Julian Stierle stands facing us at a distance, glowering over his Chosen One, the diminutive Tsai-Wei Tien, whose back is towards us: from this larger-than-life angle it is as if we are the ones in danger. Tien is an unforgettable Chosen One, a different sort of victim: tensed with lingering energy, she puts up a fight, staggering with crooked shoulders, the red dress falling off her body. She searches for a way out and even emits a grating shriek of frustration as she dances her final whirls and strikes, like a captured animal throwing itself against a cage.
It’s a daunting task that Bausch takes on, choreographing realist narratives out of our vices and haunting myths. The violence achieves its impact because, unlike a bare stage where we expect uniformed dancers to display virtuosic aggression, Bausch’s works are set in familiar locations, among familiar people. In Kontakthof and Café Müller she makes a critical craft of humor’s underbelly, wherein we might laugh too loudly in the wrong place, or punch lines could be repeated until they become first disturbing, then routine. There is a frenzied drive behind her movement that borders on masochism. Meeting Bausch’s characters again, I wonder how much agency they have in causing their own pain, and what is the others’ responsibility for stopping it?