Dance Review: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at BAM

I will continue to watch Wim Wenders’s documentary Pina, over and over—but nothing can replicate being in the room with the real deals.

A scene from Pina Bausch's Café Müller: l-r Azusa Seyama, Scott Jennings. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

A scene from Pina Bausch’s “Café Müller”: l-r Azusa Seyama, Scott Jennings. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

By Janine Parker

BROOKLYN — There were phantoms everywhere at Brooklyn Academy of Music during the recent, much-publicized performances (September 14 through 24) of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. The company is a familiar presence at the New York venue, but it was the particular program on offer—the same double bill the group performed in its 1984 BAM premiere, Bausch’s  “Café Müller” (1978) and The Rite of Spring (1975)—that whipped up spirits past and present. Bausch herself, alas, is foremost among those past; she died suddenly in 2009, but how can one not feel her presence in her very absence?

Few would consider a 43-year-old group to be on the cutting edge of dance (the Wuppertalers were headliners in BAM’s current Next Wave Festival), but that’s no matter. I suppose the company has earned “Next Wave Emeritus” status: the idiosyncrasies supplied by the tanztheater/dance theater are now—thanks in no small part to Bausch’s influence—expected, now (usually) welcome oddities for many contemporary dancegoers. In any event, the small but devoted early Bausch fan base increased here after that 1984 debut, and fairly exploded (well, relative to the usually petite dance audience) with the release of filmmaker Wim Wenders’ dreamy 2011 Pina. Part documentary, part fantastical homage to the often-lush, sometimes surreal visual sensuality that Bausch’s works generate, the film included a good deal of footage of “Café” and “Rite,” whetting the appetites of those, including myself, who’d never seen the pieces live.

Rolf Borzik’s set for “Café Müller”—consisting of grey walls, several tall “glass” doors, and little café tables and chairs arranged about the stage—looked handsome, both snug and vast, on the BAM stage. We get the sense that we are not spectators viewing a performance, but voyeurs peeking in through windows. Occasionally, however, even from my good orchestra level seat, it was difficult to see some of the dancers’ floorwork—aside from the contrast of the height of the stage with the rake of the seats, my view was further cut off by others’ heads in front of me (as I imagine my head was in the way for those behind me). Next time “Café Müller” comes around (!) I’ll go for a balcony seat. In a tanztheater work that is heavier on theater than dance, every movement is particularly precious.

The six cast members that I saw left their own indelible stamps on the work’s series of iconic, marvelously eccentric scenes. As the solitary, loosely-gowned figure who totters along the edges of the space like a sleepwalker, Helena Pikon was heartbreaking. It didn’t matter if she was sliding down onto her side, her feet skewed into gnarled sickled shapes or standing upright, her long arms swooping bonelessly or reaching out with a kind of hopelessness at once yearning and despondent. The fact that Pikon is performing what was long one of Bausch’s signature roles — and that she looks strikingly like Bausch — has been much remarked upon. Although Pau Aran Gimeno’s character weaves (almost incessantly) amidst the others, his is as isolated a figure as Pikon’s. He darts and dives about, clearing out of the way before one of the dancers trips blindly into the furniture. These initially chivalrous-seeming actions increasingly become almost unbearably anxious. Nazareth Panadero serves as comic relief to the often-melancholy proceedings: while the other dancers perform sequences that walk a line between humor and despair, her character—wearing a curly red wig, skittering about in high heels, overcoat flapping in her wake—is sweet, light. Or is she? Droplets of subtle desperation form and bead as she stumbles this way, then that.

As when I’ve seen Pina in a movie theater, the BAM audience was divided. Were the interactions of the other nightgowned figure supposed to be funny? Performed by Ophelia Young, with a captivating mixture of abandon and vulnerability, the character seems less like a sleepwalker than someone who has been heavily drugged. For me, the long, repetitive sequence—in which the various parts of her body are arranged onto a man’s, her arm here, his arm there, her face here, his face there (so that they’re frozen into a kiss), and then finally draped into a lift—is faintly, but uneasily, humorous. Each iteration of the scene feels fraught, then it finally becomes tragic. Based on their mounting laughter, others in the audience apparently experienced the opposite reaction; for them, the repeating becomes funnier and funnier. (I don’t presume there’s a right or wrong reaction, just noting the ambiguity.)

The equivocations pile up, so that a viewer is invited to teeter between dream and nightmare. First of all, where are we? The title notwithstanding, several of the characters act as if they have been medicated; they may also be exhibiting a variety of personality disorders on a sliding scale of pathology. Yet this doesn’t stop them from being endearing. The score, a series of arias by Henry Purcell, is likewise enigmatic, its beauty is also painful, aching. For me, the sound’s ghostly agitation is highly seductive, deeply moving.

For Pete’s sake, even the ghost of Vaslav Nijinsky was in the house. It is well nigh impossible to watch a version of Rite without thinking about his groundbreaking, wildly-ahead-of-its-time, riot-inducing 1913 original Sacre du Printemps. Like most choreographers (from Nijinsky on) who produce a Rite, Bausch set her dance to Igor Stravinsky’s famous score. But Bausch’s version stands solidly on its own in every other way. This is no pale copy of a legend. (In truth, we can’t know how closely the Millicent Hodson/Kenneth Archer “reconstruction” resembles the premiere production. Their project wasn’t performed until 1987, a dozen years after Bausch’s debut.)


A scene from Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s staging of “Rite of Spring.” Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Sartorially, Bausch’s version is as spare as Nijinsky’s was ornate: her female dancers wear simple, colorless shifts (aside from the chosen/sacrificial one, who ends up in red), while the men wear black slacks, their torsos bare; everyone is barefoot. According to extant pictures and drawings, artist Nicholas Roerich costumed Nijinsky’s dancers—many of them head to toe—in a riot of colors and textures; likewise, Roerich’s backdrops were vibrant. In Bausch’s Rite, one (thrilling) element of set design, also by Borzik, reminded me of Nijinsky’s staging. The floor is covered in soil (cratefuls of the stuff are dumped and then spread out by a chorus of stagehands during intermission; much of the audience stayed in the house to watch the highly efficient and entertaining proceedings, as if it was a Super Bowl halftime show). To me, this choice of bringing in real life earthiness is the connection to Nijinsky’s choreography, which was a shock to ballet goers who were accustomed to floating sylphs. The visual effect here is at first deeply sensual, even visceral, as various parts of the dancers’ bodies caress, merge with, or plunge into the rich dirt. As they begin to sweat, the soil clumps here and there — it is no longer playfully pliable. The dancers’ skin and costumes become wet and grimy. Sex, danger, and death hang in the air.

In the BAM program, here is where the majority of the “tanz” lay, and the company looked great. Yes, Bausch drew from a smallish thematic movement palette: I didn’t find it to be repetitive, but quite gorgeous, now a lyrical symphony of curved arms and backs, now a rousing march of strikingly angled torsos and starkly bent limbs. The ensemble work was gripping, the respective solo work — of Julian Stierle as the lead male and Tsai-Wei Tien as the Sacrifice — hair-raising.

I wished there had been more abandon in the “orgy” sequences. Yes, it’s important to keep the group metronome in sync while dancing in unison, but some of the bacchanalian shenanigans—mostly involving the women running and jumping onto the men, either ending up crotch-to-crotch or straddling a shoulder—erred on the side of arriving on time, rather than suggesting the possibility of a coming together (if you know what I mean). But Stierle and Tien made up for any deficit, however slight, in the drama department: he was palpably intense in his stillness; she came off as both defiant and wild, a creature determined to fight until the end. The double bill at BAM served as an exhilarating reminder of the provocative (and indispensable) power of live performance. I’m grateful for Wenders’s film— I will continue to watch it, over and over. But nothing can replicate being in the room with the real deals.

Janine Parker can be reached at

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