I miss Pina Bausch, who died in 2009. No choreographer has altered my view of dance so profoundly. This past summer I found myself recalling many of her pieces, thanks to a Wim Wenders film, followed by a magnificent Lincoln Center Festival appearance by the Paris Opera Ballet in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice.
My introduction to Bausch was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, with her discomfiting take on Bartók’s only opera (Full title: Blaubart. Beim Anhören einer Tonbandaufnahme von Béla Bartóks Oper “Herzog Blaubarts Burg,” or “Bluebeard – While Listening To A Taped Recording Of Bela Bartók´s “Duke Bluebeard´s Castle”). Afterward I couldn’t sleep, and the piece both fascinated and disturbed me for weeks. Yet as time passed, Bausch’s annual appearances at BAM became a string of wondrous experiences, most using jaw-dropping stagecraft. The odd co-star of Arien (1979) was a lifelike hippopotamus, sloshing on a stage covered with six inches of water. In 1980 (1980), working sprinklers kept green chunks of sod (and a few bugs) alive as the cast frolicked on a summer lawn. And as the audience assembled for Palermo, Palermo (1989), the stage was dominated by a mammoth floor-to-ceiling wall of concrete blocks—that toppled as the work began, leaving the dancers to navigate amid the rubble. (The latter was revived last July at Sadler's Wells, along with nine other late Bausch works over five weeks—Sarah Crompton comments here.)
But Bausch’s extravagant, “let’s-give-the-tech-crew-another-headache” sets were just part of her esthetic, which invites the audience into a universe of movement coupled with unsettling emotional content. Her dancers—most of whom could be your neighbors, rather than looking classically trained—were physically and emotionally adventurous. A Bausch performance never left me unmoved or unshaken, after seeing men and women ignore each other, play with each other, be cruel to each other, fight with each other. Her patterns have a hypnotic pull, but radically different from the formations of say, George Balanchine or Paul Taylor; hers are behaviors from which the participants cannot escape.
Wenders’s touching documentary Pina (2011) captures the strange Bausch allure, using footage from The Rite of Spring (1975), Café Muller and Kontakthof (both 1978), and Vollmond (2006). Additional sequences were shot in the slightly gritty streets of Wuppertal (home of Bausch's Tanztheater), all interwoven with reminiscences from the individual dancers, facing the camera in tight close-ups. The film also deploys 3-D photography as effectively as I’ve ever seen.
Which brings us to this year's Lincoln Center Festival, and the Paris Opera Ballet in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice—the only time I have seen a Bausch piece done by a company other than her own. In its North American premiere (originally created in 1975), Orpheus made a powerful impression, starting with the minimal sets by Rolf Borzik (who also did the costumes and lighting). On the mostly bare stage in Scene I (“Mourning”) are a glass cube, a mound of charcoal earth, a horizontal tree branch extending from a side wall. “Violence” (Scene II) has a grove of tall wooden chairs, and later, three men in black leather executioners’ aprons, while the orchestra plays a tingling Allegro vivace. Beds of flowers and a back wall of reflective glass give Scene III (“Peace”) a zen-like calm, leading to the final empty black stage (Scene IV, “Death”) when Orpheus returns to the Underworld.
The three singers—Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Orpheus, Yun Jung Choi as Eurydice and Zoe Nicolaidou as Love—were uniformly excellent, along with (in one of Bausch’s brilliant strokes) their dance doubles: Stéphane Bullion, Marie-Agnès Gillot and Muriel Zusperreguy, respectively. Thomas Hengelbrock conducted the superb Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble und Chor (based in Freiburg). In the Paris corps, Bausch’s movements became sleekly refined, even ethereal—a wave of bodies gently washing the stage. An early sequence, in which the black-clad group advanced diagonally, brought to mind the sobriety of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.
As an example of Bausch’s early work, Orpheus shows the great choreographer already beginning subtly to depart from the dance world’s traditions. The unnerving theatricality, ambiguity, gender confrontations—and humor—would appear in her later works, which get under your skin with alarming ease.
[Above: Marlis Alt in the original 1977 production of Blaubart. Beim Anhören einer Tonbandaufnahme von Béla Bartóks Oper “Herzog Blaubarts Burg." Photo by Maarten Vanden Abeele]