Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch @ BAM

As a graduate student I used to venture out to BAM regularly to visit what was, in the 1990s, one of New York’s few locations for international experimental theater. And when I went over the bridge last night, I was relieved to find there is still one place in New York where people are not glued to their iPhones, one place that technology consumerism hasn’t yet colonized. Anja insisted that we get there 20 minutes early to watch the people arrive, and to be sure, the audience was as varied and as interesting as any cross-section of New York’s cultural and intellectual world. There were people of all ages, some dressed with abandon, others very meticulously put together, still others who arrived with their head still in a book. New York’s most vibrant intellectuals had crawled out of the woodwork to see Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s final work.

I last saw Tanztheater Wuppertal perform in New York, at Lincoln Center, in 2002. I remember it as being intellectual, avant-garde, somewhat experimental, I remember the dancers being of all different ages, being strong in personality, and saw them pushing at the boundaries of what it means to dance, to perform, to act.

But last night’s performance at BAM was softer, more fluid, more dreamy, less intellectually challenging. It was a delight. While it was enjoyable and engaging, there was nothing particularly radical about the dancing or the message being conveyed in the series of vignettes that made up "…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…" (Like moss on a stone). Unlike vintage Pina Bausch from the 1970s, the performance was not experimental and nor did it push boundaries. The overall narrative was resoundingly heterosexual: men and women struggled, fell in and out of each others arms, loved each other, writhed in agony and anger, but always, they came back to the fundamental belief in the resilience of the heterosexual relationship.

While the kind of relationship explored in the vignettes that made up "…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…"  was conventional, so much of the delight of the piece was in the strength and power of the women as they reveled in their femininity. Not only did the women outnumber the men, but they wore an exquisite array of colorful, sensual dresses – in familiar Pina Bausch style. The men, however, were often shorter, wore black, and were more generic, less distinctive in their appearance. The women teased the men, combatted them, resisted them, and then they fell into their arms, like honey as they melted into their feminine softness. And all the time, the women were playful and joyous, filled with an energy that spoke their endless enthusiasm for life.

The women dancers were beautiful, but not always in a conventional sense: striking in their defined facial features and the clarity of their movements.  They all had long, thick hair that became as integrated into their identities, their power, and the overall narrative as did their gorgeous dresses. They used their dresses not only as clothes, but as paniers for rocks, for grass, they transformed them into screens, fans, and curtains between them and the men. The women were always more beautiful and more exotic than the men with their colorful dresses, their long hair determining the shape of the dances as well as the stories, claiming their power as women. This feminine strength was uplifting, something to be celebrated.

The theatrical dance itself was about the intensity of what it means to love, to be intimate, the struggle to find emotional security and the difficulty of holding onto it. So the emotions conveyed in movement were at times profound. The pain, for example, of a woman at the end of a rope tied around her waist as she tugged, and writhed at speed, like a dog on the end of a lead was excruciating. It was painful because we may not all have been tied to the end of a rope, but we know the feeling of being unable to break loose from the chains that hold us back, hold us in one place. Then, in one of the most sensuous and erotic scenes, all of the dancers formed a line diagonally across the stage, sitting linked in the space between the legs of the one behind (above). As they sat, leaning back into the one behind, each brushed and massaged the hair of the one in front, to the beat of the playful music. It was, again, revealing of intimacy and tenderness.

Such moments of harmony were broken when a single dancer broke into an intense solo, at a pace that ensured we were transported into a realm of confrontation, into the isolation and untrained energy that puts distance between the need for love and the love itself. And so, the dancing was expansive and intense — as we came to expect from Pina Bausch — between comedy and intimacy, antagonism and isolation. And, to reiterate, I came away uplifted by the energy of the women as they indulged the depths of their femininity. Ultimately, however, I am not sure that this performance added to my understanding of what dance can do, or where it can go.

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